On a cold snowy Sunday afternoon, two days after Christmas in 2009, Assistant Professor Don Belton was at home preparing for his first trip to Honolulu, where he would be headed the following day. He’d reached the end of his third semester teaching at Indiana University in Bloomington, and welcomed the chance to get away. On his cell phone confirming travel arrangements, he walked coatless to the garage to retrieve something from his car, likely too busy imagining balmy weather and warm beaches awaiting him on the other end of the flight—a place his good friend there had insisted really was Paradise—to notice the rapid approach of a tall man. The ground was blanketed in snow. Muffled footsteps would not trouble the silence. Thick flakes of snow caught in Don’s braids and dappled his shoulders. As he turned back toward the house, a familiar figure emerged from the snowy swirl. It was his friend Michael, on foot. Don immediately ended his call and turned to greet Michael.
Later, Michael would tell the police, Don was surprised, “but happy to see me.” Surprised, because Michael lived a good twenty minute drive outside of town in the country with his girlfriend Autumn, and he had never before showed up unannounced, let alone without Autumn’s white truck. Happy because, according to the police report, Don had privately confessed in his journal just weeks before that a man named Michael had come into his life.
The two men walked inside the little bungalow Don rented on the near west side of town. Michael asked if he was interrupting, and Don said no, of course not, and offered Michael a glass of water. In the adjacent bedroom, an empty carry-on suitcase lay open on the bed, surrounded by various piles of clothes, signaling Don’s indecisiveness about what to pack.
Standing in the warm yellow light of the kitchen, Michael broached the subject of Christmas night, which Don had spent with Michael and Autumn, at their invitation, at the house in Newtown they shared. But the tone quickly shifted when Michael made an ugly accusation. This was followed by Don’s disavowal or, at least, his disagreement with Michael’s version of events, which included the word “rape.” A verbal exchange followed, with Michael towering over Don. Most likely, things became heated and, knowing Don as we all did, he might have even yelled, but fear of another’s rage would have made him retreat. It was apparently when Don turned to walk away that Michael reached out and grabbed his shoulders, just to stop him, to make him listen, he testified later. But when Don spun back around, most likely doing his best to push him away, Michael pulled out the double-bladed Peace Keeper knife he’d brought along. It was the same knife he’d carried with him while on Marine duty in Iraq. What must Don have thought? Evidence would indicate he put out his hands to protect himself. Later, Michael would claim Don was going for the knife, and that what Michael did next was an act of self-defense. The coroner would determine that the knife wounds on Don’s hands were defensive.
But it was no use. In a matter of seconds, the double blade of the Peace Keeper was plunged into Don’s body, twisting deep into vital organs, not once, not even twice, and not three times, but, four, five, six, seven—keep counting—each lethal thrust adding up to a total of twenty-two. Like metered feet, a rhythmic rage had unleashed itself. According to the probable cause affidavit, Michael “stabbed him until he quit moving.”
Minutes later, the small body of Don Belton lay crumpled on his kitchen floor, bleeding from multiple wounds on his back and side. I picture him wearing what he often did, rumpled wide wale corduroy pants, maybe a turtleneck, and signature black socks, curled in a fetal position like a sleeping child. Except for the blood that would be slowly collecting on the kitchen floor.
Michael exited the house, strode down the snowy side street to Autumn’s white pickup, which later he’d explain he deliberately parked two and a half blocks away, wiped down the knife blade, changed out of the bloody clothes into a clean outfit he’d brought along, and drove off. He stopped long enough to toss the bloody clothes, wrapped in a white plastic bag, into a dumpster on his way across town to the co-op to pick up bottled water, and then on to the video store to return DVD’s. Later, he would claim no memory of killing Don, or the twenty-two thrusts of the peacekeeper that he pushed in and out of Don’s body. Just as he had no memory of the rape he’d accused Don of. He and Autumn had spent the evening growing more and more intoxicated. He would later say he learned about the rape when Autumn reported periodically waking up in the night to see Don in their bed performing oral sex and then penetrating Michael, not once, but twice. “He violated you,” she informed him, and only then did Michael wonder if something terrible had happened. Because he had no memory of the events, or even trying to fight off Don, he had to trust Autumn’s account. Returning home to Newtown now, he walked into the house, calm and even, and set down the DVDs and bottled water. His errands had been accomplished. He reported to Autumn, “Don’t worry, he won’t bother us anymore.”
The story broke in bits and pieces, in a mishmash of facts and misinformation, through newspaper accounts, word of mouth, and rumor. What I have written above is the only way I know to tell the events, because no one else was present.
The morning Don was murdered I was driving back to Bloomington after spending Christmas with my family in another state. My father had died seven months before in the spring, after a protracted illness that included long hospitalizations and difficult procedures, and my mother’s mute, stoic agony. Over the year, my life was interrupted by urgent phone calls instructing me to “come now” that led to crazy six-hour drives, with little regard for my own safety, all three animals, my dog and two cats, hurriedly stuffed in the back of my car, and a suitcase of hastily-packed clothes teetering on the seat next to me. There were the disheartening talks with doctors in airless, fluorescent-lit corridors of the hospital, the inconclusive diagnoses, my father’s adverse reactions to medicines that sent him into hallucinations (Civil Rights workers were disembarking from buses there in his hospital room), the intrusive tubes and the IV’s, the hospital psychosis, an ambulance ride to the Cleveland Clinic, and my mother’s unequivocal certainty that the doctors didn’t understand “this was a healthy, vital man” they were dealing with, and they were killing him.
After months, my father finally died alone in the hospital in his sleep. It was heartbreaking. Just hours before, my mother and youngest brother kissed him goodnight and headed home for some well-needed sleep before they would return the next day. They were awakened in the early morning by a call from the hospital informing them he was “gone.” Gone from here, gone to where? It was a question my sister kept asking. “Where did Daddy go?”
My father’s funeral was a private graveside affair with just the Episcopal priest, my mother, two of my three brothers, and me. The gravedigger had been hard at work, carving out a square-shaped space for the box that contained my father’s ashes. When it was time, I asked him for his shovel, and once my mother had lowered the box into the hole, I began to cover it with the earth piled along the sides of the hole. The rain thickened, and I was glad I’d worn my black rubber boots. There was comfort in the shovel. My father and I had shared a love of gardening.
Afterwards, as gray drizzle turned to weak sun, we took a short drive in search of the fields of bluebells my mother loves, which was mostly just an excuse not to talk, and then returned back to her house to cook a meal. Everyone fell into silence. I was the only one talking about my father. When I began recalling aloud how beautiful his hands were, the long, tapered fingers traveling up and down the piano keyboard, my mother looked up, as if startled, and said, “Yes, you’re right,” and then abruptly changed the subject. Finally, I got it. They were not comforted by words or memories. They were asking me to be quiet. The house felt like a tomb.
Four months later, in the September following my father’s death, another family emergency arose. Returning home from a social gathering, I discovered a pileup of phone messages from desperate family members and my sister’s school, that she was being helicoptered to a hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. Without warning, she had fainted earlier that day while in class, and then to everyone’s surprise gone into sudden massive hemorrhaging. Because I am her legal guardian, I was the one who jumped in the car to drive four hours to where she lay in a bed in ICU. My sister lives in a boarding school in Frankfort, where she rides horses and competes in Special Olympics swimming events. Earlier that evening for the first time in months I had turned off the cell phone so I could relax. Ironically, I had just finished telling someone who asked about my family that my happy sister was the only member I didn’t worry about. It’s no stretch to say she is the light of my life, and the thought of losing another family member made me wild with fear. In fact, the timing was downright creepy.
When I walked into her room, it was the absence of any color in her normally intense blue eyes, and the yellow, dough-like sheen to her skin that told the story. “We almost lost her,” one of her teachers told me. For five days, I drove the four hours each way to the hospital where she lay sweetly oblivious. Slowly, the color in her eyes returned and, after a week, she was released without a clear diagnosis. For the next ten days, though it made no sense whatsoever, I insisted the school security staff, while on their nightly rounds, wake her up my sister with a flash light, and look into her eyes.
After this, just the ring of a phone would bring me, irrationally, into tears. I couldn’t conquer the jumpiness or avoid the pervasive dread. Sometimes hours passed before I knew it. I had arrived at Christmas with the hope that our all being together, and celebrating my sister’s return to health, would bring us closer. But instead, the chaos proved disorienting for my mother, and though we’d all flown or driven in to salvage something of a holiday, it managed to metastasize into a series of mini-disasters brought on by mutual and unspoken griefs. My sister and three brothers were all present, along with a niece and her family, but everything was off-kilter, and my mother was worn out and agitated by my niece’s children. The deep snow outside into which the town had been plunged created a barrier between us and the outside world. It was as if we were all buried under snow, suffering a kind of cabin fever, and couldn’t imagine how to claw our way out. Of course I had no idea that in another week my mother would be hospitalized for almost six weeks with a serious heart condition, followed by a case of pneumonia that would almost kill her. And to my great shame, when this happened, I was too overwhelmed to offer her the comfort I should have, and instead I immersed myself in the aftermath of Don’s death.
The day after Christmas, as I fled back to Bloomington, I burned with a hot red anger. I hit the left lane, and made it home in under six hours, to what I imagined to be my oasis of relief. I began to ease my way into the reassurance that the worst was over, that life goes on, it really does, and the New Year would be just that, a fresh start like the turning of a page.
I changed the ring tone on my cell phone, opting for a series of gentle beeps that felt more like gentle nudges than alarms.
For the first time in a long time, I slept deeply, released from nightmares. When I woke up, I could feel my body again. I was able to meet my own gaze in the bathroom mirror. The next morning after a leisurely coffee in the sunny kitchen, I walked my dog through bright snow, creating the first prints, both paws and boots, in the schoolyard a block away. There was ease in my movements, the breath returning to normal. I then drove to campus, glorying in the silent halls and the warm familiarity of my office where I would, of course, begin to catch up for all the lost time, and “finally get some work done.” The view out my windows is spectacular: huge old bare-branched trees like winter ghosts, the empty campus spread out with building after limestone building flocked in snowy grandeur. I’d like to say that something seemed out of whack, but it didn’t. In fact, everything felt just right, and I settled into my office chair with a clear purpose that had eluded me for more than a year.
In fact, I was surprised how easily I plunged into writing the first line of a story tentatively titled “Hush,” and then couldn’t stop, after months of being unable to concentrate on much of anything. Then came the familiar and insistent rush of voice and words. The story centered on the mother of a teenage boy who’d accidentally killed a female passenger in the car he was driving. I was exploring the eerie emotional connections between the father of the dead girl and the mother of the careless teenage boy driving. I have no idea where the story came from, but something about the intimacy of people on opposite sides of a tragedy took hold and didn’t let go. Looking back, it now feels like a premonition.
I worked through the whole day in a white heat, something I hadn’t done in a very long time, and by five o’clock, forty pages of a sprawling, over-written rough draft were evidence of my labors. Outside, the dark blue sky was just verging on twilight, and lampposts suddenly illuminated the brick paths outside below. Pulling on my jacket, I considered ignoring the little chime that announced the arrival of an email in my inbox. Unable to resist, I gave a quick peek. Subject line announced “sad news.” The body of the message explained simply that our colleague Don had been found dead in his house. That was it. No other details.
Don dead? In his house? There must be some mistake. No, Don was in Hawaii. I sat back down in my desk chair, too warm in my winter coat, but too paralyzed to take it off, and stared at the computer screen.
My last conversation with Don took place a few days before, in the stairwell of our building. He had been excited about his Hawaii trip. I believed there must be a mistake. I checked the online version of the local paper. Sure enough, a three-line article on the front page had just posted: fifty-three-year-old man found dead in a house on the very street Don lived.
Don was fifty-three.
Was it possible someone else was staying in Don’s house? And then an awful thought occurred. Was it possible that somehow the trip hadn’t worked out, and a morose Don had succumbed to the despair of being alone at the holidays? I couldn’t help remembering that his oldest brother had committed suicide years before.
A typical university town, Bloomington empties out over the school breaks, and the streets turn quiet and desolate. Between the bad weather and holiday pressures, a person can be driven crazy. Don and I had often talked about being middle-aged and single in a university town known by that lethal-for-the-unattached descriptor as “a great place to raise kids.” We had commiserated about the challenges of trying to have a personal adult life, the lack of anonymity. I knew Don to be cautious, aware of his own vulnerability almost to the point of obsession. He was afraid to meet anyone online, he told me, and careful not to ever put himself in harm’s way. Despite the fact that he was, like me, used to urban settings, Don had told me repeatedly, “I got tired of worrying about getting mugged. I think I can make Bloomington home.” But I also knew that he, like me, also missed the energy cities bring; the sudden, marvelous collisions with strangers, the sense of mystery around each corner.
I also knew he no longer had a home on the East Coast to return to. His parents were both dead. And he was estranged from his remaining older brother, Robert, an ex-felon redeemed as a Pentecostal preacher, who still lived on the East Coast and believed, according to Don, that homosexuality was a sin. They had not spoken for ten years. As is true of many queer friends, Don had mastered the art of creating his own version of family, through a network of friends.
Like Don, I have lived many different places, so “home” was for me, as it was for him, an elusive term, maybe just the place where you are. If pressed, I often call California my “home” because it’s where I lived the longest, but most of my family is on the East Coast, my mother in the Midwest, and I was born overseas, and have lived in six different states. And like Don, I never expected to end up in the Midwest, teaching at a university. Occasionally, Don joked about marrying me. I bantered back that I’d tried it twice, and never again. We laughed. We talked about teaching, about struggles with our work. We both admitted to secretly feeling like imposters on the job, even though I quickly reminded Don that unlike my degrees from state institutions, he had a pretty tony looking vitae. Mostly, I think, Don was worried about producing the requisite novel for tenure, or what in our profession is referred to as “the book,” the magic key that unlocks the door to a job for life. His heart seemed to lie more in nonfiction, and yet he was pushing himself hard to complete a manuscript that I sometimes suspected he felt bullied by.
En route to the elevator, I passed Don’s office, half-expecting to see the reassuring glow of light visible from under the door, and to discover he was in some improbable turn of events inside working furiously on that tenure manuscript, and someone else was dead in his house. In the dim hallway light, I stopped to read the Buddhist quote taped to his door about world peace. It made me queasy. When I got in the car, I was shaking so hard I couldn’t stop. But I managed to drive the short distance home by applying hyper-concentration to each turn of the snowy streets. Once inside, I began to make phone calls and send emails about Don. No one was responding, because no one was around. It was cold and wet outside. I crossed the street in my shirtsleeves to my neighbors’ house where Don had once visited. They were home and invited me in, and the three of us sat stunned in their living room, speculating on the thin facts. Already, a sense of foreboding was mounting.
They wondered, too. Had Don been robbed? Had someone broken in? Had he done the unthinkable and taken his own life? The ifs and buts added up to nothing that could remotely make any sense. Don had fears, I knew that. Once, when I tried to say that I understood what it means to live in a vulnerable body, he snapped angrily at me that I didn’t know at all. I wasn’t a black, gay man. I didn’t back down. I wasn’t competing or even comparing, I told him, but he was still peeved. I had crossed a line again. Though I didn’t say it, I thought sometimes Don seemed hardwired to feel misunderstood. That he was right about his own vulnerability goes without saying. But he didn’t have an exclusive claim. And I gave up trying to convince him he should let me in.
I wish I could say that Don was my first murdered friend, but he wasn’t. I wish I could say my life has been relatively free of loss, but it hasn’t. I’d like to write that Don and I were inseparable, confided in each other, and that I have dedicated myself to honoring the memory of a close, dear friend. None of that is true. We often talked at school—good talks—but our outside friendship was tenuous at best, as Don was moody, and could go from being sweetly affectionate to peckish to downright insufferable in a matter of minutes. But he could also be fun—lots of fun—and very funny, and very smart, a veritable archive about music of all kinds, and black history and literature, and our interests crossed and intersected in a kind of wonderful cat’s cradle. There were days I liked him a lot, and days I avoided him for being a real pill. But no matter Don’s mood, he always felt deeply familiar to me. We were products of the same generation, our childhoods deeply affected by the counter-cultures that responded to the Vietnam War and Civil Rights, the rise of Black Power, the devastation of AIDS. We even laughed once about how while he discovering himself as a young man in New York, I was forging my way in the Bay Area, both centers of social upheaval and change.
It’s a funny thing about loss, how each one refers to the next and each loss sets off echoes of the one before. Over the next few days, Don’s murder got folded into my father’s death, and my father’s death kept returning first ripples and then waves of disbelief. As time wore on, and coworkers began returning from winter break, there was a collective reserve about Don’s murder. A sad, awkward meeting about Don and plans for a memorial grew more and more uncomfortable. There were concerns, but questions were understandably generic. How had Don met the young man? Was this a racially-motivated murder? In response, a faculty member said he doubted it, because his son had been a good friend of Michael’s in high school. I grew more impatient as I listened. The story, like much of life, doesn’t divide itself so easily into good and bad. I also sensed an unspoken distaste for the possibility that Don and Michael had actually been attracted to each other. Because there were no words for what I was feeling, I was uncharitable in my thoughts, and selfish in my condemnation.
The university was slow in issuing an official public statement, and when it did, the words were cautious and tight-lipped. As speculation and details emerged—and they were ugly—people retreated. Questions, both spoken and implied, hung in the air. Was Don really a rapist? A predator? What struck me is how Don’s paranoia now came full circle to prove him right. And he wasn’t here to defend himself. I kept thinking, what if Michael had been the black gay man who murdered a straight, white university professor? The refusal of so many people to talk about Don fueled my rage. Everywhere I turned, people pushed on, expressionless. I burned inside. Of course I had no way of knowing what people felt or thought, and for all I know they were as sad as I. But silence makes me desperate, just as it did when my father died. I felt like a plant cut off at the root.
Two years before I’d sat on the search committee that interviewed Don. I remember his on-campus visit distinctly. He arrived, a small brown man with braids and a wide, puckish smile, full of energy and excitement. He wore a formal black suit and a colorful bowtie, but he could easily have passed for twenty years younger than he was. Everyone was charmed. Don was funny, sincere, and open. The students instantly loved him, drawn to his warmth and generosity. An acquaintance of mine who had recommended Don assured me I would really like him, and she was right. I had high hopes. Don would be a breath of fresh air.
Don arrived in Bloomington with more furniture and “stuff” than one might expect from someone who’d been so peripatetic, but the bulk of his possessions was the immense book collection he owned: years of browsing bookstores, years of reading, years of loving literature. Don’s intelligence was prodigious. And he always had something to say on almost any subject. It wasn’t uncommon to find students hanging out in his office, just a few doors down from mine on the fifth floor, curled on the sofa littered with books, and books on shelves, and stacked on the floor, on chairs. Passing by, I’d catch glimpses of Don, in black-socked feet and an old wool sweater and his rumpled corduroys, tipped back in his chair, belting out his loud, infectious laugh. If he was alone, working at his computer, he’d sometimes call out to me. If he was in a good mood, he’d invite me in and we’d end up talking for a long time. Sometimes we joked around, being silly—and Don could be very silly, a quality I cherish—but other times we were more earnest, or should I say, more passionate in our discussions.
I’d like to say that Don and I hung out a lot, given we shared interests, like music, politics, books, Buddhism, film, and a general worldview. But we didn’t. In some way we were mirror reflections of each other, a fact that Don observed in his own way, but didn’t seem particularly happy about. Ironically, this maybe made Don more cautious around me. It is presumptuous to think you can know anyone immediately, but during that first long late summer day I drove him around to look for housing, when he first arrived, we talked easily, like old friends. That was the first time he told me how glad he was to get out the big city where he often felt vulnerable (“I’m tired of having my car broken into just because I forgot and left a quarter on the seat”), and how Bloomington felt so safe. I assured him it was an easy place to live, easy to get around, reasonably free of danger, if you weren’t a drunk student headed to a frat party. I had divorced three years before, and no longer had a home in California. Bloomington had become my primary residence, and I was still adjusting. Don’s arrival gave me great comfort. I told him over and over how happy I was he was here. He had lived in a number of small towns over the years, teaching for a year here and there, before moving on. I didn’t pry. He didn’t offer.
A couple weeks before his murder, I was in the checkout line at the co-op when I spotted Don at a table eating breakfast from the hot bar. He hadn’t bothered to take off his tweed winter coat and black watchman’s cap. Something funny occurred to me. I had showed up for the same reason, to buy breakfast from the hot bar, and it was already on the tip of my tongue to make some joke about how pathetic we both were. I waved; he waved back, which I took as an invitation. What I hadn’t realized is that he was in a mood. He said something about people not leaving him alone. The fact is, he so often joked around it was easy to misread him. So I thought he was playing. I joked back. He said something more that I thought he meant to be funny, and I laughed. At this point, his annoyance escalated and he snapped, “You don’t know me,” and pulled his head down like a turtle, into his coat collar. I said something like, “I know you’re not serious,” and he snapped back in anger, “Yes, I am.” He was dismissing me. It stung. I left then, thinking what a pain in the ass he was, and how self-centered he could be. I was too hurt to be mad. Later, that same day, he surprised me by strolling down the hall to my office in his sock feet as if nothing had happened and sweetly asking for help on filling out his annual faculty report. I stopped short of asking him about what happened earlier. To be honest, Don had a charm that could make me doubt myself. Maybe I’d overreacted. Maybe, like Don, I, too, felt vulnerable and easily wounded. I let it go.
There were also moments of spontaneous intimacy with him. Like the afternoon we left a downtown restaurant together in high spirits, with Don’s arm threaded through mine, and how we simultaneously broke into the Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway ballad, “Be Real Black for Me.” It was a moment of pure sweetness, the two of us like that, harmonizing our hearts out, the way I used to with my teenage girlfriends, crowded around someone’s record player with the forty-five spinning away, an image Don would understand.
The last time I saw Don was just before his trip to Hawaii and my departure to my mother’s house for Christmas. He was heading down the stairs to the parking lot, and I was half a flight above, just finishing a class. He looked up when he heard my footsteps. “He-e-ey!” he called out, breaking into a huge smile. “Where are you going for Christmas?”
Weak winter light streamed in behind him through the stairwell window, illuminating him in an angelic glow.
“Not any place as exciting as you are,” I replied. I’d been to Hawaii twice while living on the West Coast and found it crammed with tourists. And there had been an incident there, one of the many close calls in my life. But I wouldn’t dampen his excitement. I leaned over the rail, all smiles, and warned him to take plenty of sunscreen, since the sun burns like the devil himself there, and I didn’t want him damaging his pretty skin.
“Oh, you’ve been!” he said, grinning broadly. “We need to talk, girl!” He said he wanted packing tips. A dyed-in-the-wool East Coaster, he was worried he didn’t have enough warm-weather clothes. Somehow I couldn’t imagine tweedy Don in surfer’s jams or beach sandals.
“I’m gonna call you—for advice,” he said, curving his thumb and pinkie finger by his ear. I remember thinking, no you won’t, because you always say you will, but you never do. And then his expression shifted, as if something had occurred to him, and he looked straight up into my eyes. No joking, no peckishness. In that warm winter light, I had the odd feeling that he was seeing me for the very first time, and I remember imagining that when we both returned from break, we’d begin anew. Strange as it sounds, I felt in that moment that Don loved me.
“Alyce,” he said, in the sweetest tone, “you are just so beautiful.”
It was one of those rare, tender moments. Could it be that Don and I wanted the same thing, connection with others? It took a moment to find words.
“You are, too, Don,” I said. And I meant it, thinking that a part of me loved Don back. We would have to spend more time together when we both got back. Maybe his first year had been a tough transition. Home was not a fixed place for either of us.
And then we were wishing each other happy holidays, and he went on down the stairs, and I headed up to my office to drop off my books. A day or so later Don sent an email around to the entire faculty in our program just to say how much he enjoyed working with us, and how much it meant to him to be here. Despite the fact that he’d managed to piss off the others as well, I believed him.
Both national and local news coverage and commentary milked Don’s murder for all it was worth, the easy narrative of the older black homosexual predatory professor stalking a man half his age, a white, troubled war veteran and local hero. I kept being asked how these two would have even met. As I pointed out to the eager young reporter who came knocking at my door in search of a sensational story, it was not only the wrong question, but demonstrated the provincialism of “both town and gown,” not to mention all that was implied about race and class. Clearly, Don and Michael had discovered something in each other. It began with a chance meeting in a downtown bookstore where, according to Michael’s girlfriend Autumn, the two ended up discussing the evils of war. Michael had just returned from Iraq. He was drawn to Don’s knowledge. He was disillusioned with the war. Both were interested in Buddhism. Both were struggling to reconcile themselves with confining cultural models of masculinity. In fact, Don had actually edited an anthology on the subject. It was likely—and here’s a point of speculation on my part—that Michael was drawn to Don, in part, because Don likely understood some of the questions that plagued him. But for many, the two men remained abstractions, a murderer and a victim, with a dubious connection.
Strangers and vague acquaintances who approached me thought nothing of asking, “Did you really know that murdered guy?” It surprised them less than when I added that I also knew the murderer. I did this with one goal in mind: to shut people up. I was angry with the askers, but I was oddly angry with Don. Why did you go and get yourself killed? Why didn’t you understand the danger you were in?
Initially, the news painted Don as an outsider and loner with few connections, who’d bounced from pillar to post in search of something he didn’t seem to be finding. In fact, had this particular narrative been allowed to stand, it would have been easy to write Don off completely—a drifter, someone unmoored, a troubled man with perverse proclivities. There were some partial truths, perhaps the most dangerous kind of all. Don was complicated. Don was not always likable. But Don was not a loner or an outsider. And, I believed firmly, Don was not violent. In the year and a half that he lived in Bloomington, he’d managed to befriend more people than I had after ten years. In the short time he was here, he’d rented and lived in three different houses. Each time he moved he managed to seduce even the most distant of acquaintances into helping him lug his enormous number of belongings, not to mention the more than two thousand books he owned, to his newest dwelling. Don was one of those people my grandmother would have described as having “never met a stranger.” He was also someone who was perfectly happy to rely on the kindness of strangers. As an eldest child, I used to speculate that because Don had been the youngest child of his parents, he was spoiled and accustomed to being cared for. His older brother would later chuckle when I asked about this. “Oh, yeah,” he said, “That was Don.”
At the candlelight vigil held a week after his murder, a huge crowd circled the square for an hour in the bitter cold. Friends and acquaintances compared notes. It seemed Don had garnered at least four invitations on Thanksgiving Day, several more on Christmas Eve, and two more on Christmas day.
Don’s circle was wide and eclectic, and he was skilled at getting people to embrace him. He was simultaneously charming and needy, a disarming combination. Many described him as the sort of person you wanted to know. One old friend went further. “He was someone I had to know.”
My guess is that for many of his white, straight friends, of which he seemed to have many, Don occupied a special status. Not unlike the wealthy white mentor, Ida, who had entered his life when he was a teenager, singled him out, and assumed the role of benefactress. Recognizing his keen intelligence and talent, she saw to it he attended a fine prep school, and continued on to private college and grad school. He often spoke of her as his adopted mother, despite the fact that his own mother was still very much alive then. According to those close to Don, he spoke with Ida about his life every day on the phone. He felt alienated from his own family, but often his comments were elliptical and inconsistent. Later, when I would meet some of his family members, his brother in person and some cousins on the phone, I heard only how much Don was loved and beloved. One female cousin said, “Of course we knew Uncle Don was gay, but we didn’t care.” Don thought they did. The truth likely lies somewhere in between, and is not mine to prove or disprove. What matters is the way that sometimes love is not enough, and how families come apart and disappoint.
For all the tragedy in his life, the eventual loss of his parents, oldest brother, and sister, and the incarceration of his brother Robert, Don was still a lucky duck. Even if he wasn’t born into it, he’d had a life of privilege, going to the best schools, and eventually being mentored by famous writers like James Baldwin. Thanks to Ida, he had been given advantages very few of us ever have, a fact some of his family members mentioned as part of his magic. It’s quite possible that Don didn’t see himself as others did. It’s a trait of wounded people. It’s a trait that I recognize in myself. Sometimes I joke that it’s a prerequisite to being a writer. Sometimes I wanted to say to Don, “You’re not the only one who hurts.”
When he said, “I think Bloomington will work,” I’d reassure him Bloomington was very workable, and in doing so, I was reassuring myself. Eventually he’d say to me, “It feels like home here,” and on several occasions he asked if, when the time came, I’d help him hunt for a house to buy. He planned to save money for a down payment after he’d paid off his debts. I believe Don was scared, but I also believe he was beginning to find his place. And meeting Michael had, according to his own hand-written journal entry, in one of those hundreds of journals he kept, maybe brought him closer to what he was seeking.
A great deal was written about Don’s murder. Gay blogs, AP news articles, op-ed pieces, human interest stories. The nasty details made it all so much sadder, and the tainted story took on a life of its own. Michael’s claim that Don raped him not once but twice, on Christmas night after their dinner party and lots of drinking, was as ugly as it gets. I didn’t even know Don drank. From what I knew, Autumn and Michael liked to party and readily admitted to being wasted. It was also reputed that they enjoyed experimenting sexually with multiple partners. Michael was a huge, fit, younger man, and Don was pudgy and small, and not particularly strong. Don, who was so worried about his own safety, certainly would have known that Michael kept guns and knives in his house. Would he have exposed himself to such danger? Taken such a risk?
Much of the national independent journalism speculated that Michael was going to assert and prevail on a gay panic defense (not a legal defense, of course, but the layperson’s name for various strategies that defense attorneys have employed in the past to justify homicide of someone either gay or presumed to be gay).
In reality, Michael readily admitted to killing Don. He claimed he was upset enough about what had occurred that he initially went to Don’s house to talk with him, when Don became aggressive. When asked about the knives, he explained that he never went anywhere without them. The morning after Christmas and the alleged rapes both Autumn and Michael described having breakfast with Don. And then Autumn drove Don back to Bloomington. Later she would tell me on the phone that she was furious with Don, confronted him with his actions, which he denied, but still drove him because he had no way to get home. After returning to Newtown, she spent hours discussing with Michael what she had seen. According to police interviews with both Autumn and Michael, as the two talked about Don and what allegedly had taken place, Autumn and Michael reported having sex several times. This is not merely a prurient detail. Its presence in the story still astonishes me, as well as the fact that they had made it part of the public record. Another human moment to try to make sense of. Was it, I wondered, an act of self-comfort? Was it meant to reassure them both that Michael was straight? Rumor had it that Autumn kept pressing Michael about his sexuality, and his relationship with Don. What did she mean when she said that Don violated them both? And hadn’t she suspected Michael might be capable of violence? It was she who called the police after Michael confessed to her he’d killed Don.
I’d gotten to know Autumn two summers earlier, when I hired her through a friend to help me weed my out-of-control garden for a few days. I immediately liked her. She was a tall, pretty girl in her late twenties, outgoing and curious. I got a kick out of her chatty company, as well as her knowledge about plants. There was tenderness in her approach to gardening. She would tell me what plants were curatives and what to expect when something blossomed. Sometimes she’d enthusiastically show me a remarkable bug in her gloved hand. The past summer she occasionally talked about a new boyfriend, Michael, who had recently returned from Iraq, where a close friend, struck by gunfire, had died in his arms. For his valor, Michael had won a purple heart. But he had nightmares, and sometimes he was erratic and irritable. I remember asking her if he was violent. She assured me he had never been that way with her. While she was working with me in my yard, Michael would phone, usually to make arrangements for her to pick up his two year-old son. I got the impression that the relationship had gotten rocky. One day, after hanging up, Autumn sighed and grew uncharacteristically quiet. When I asked if everything was okay, she shrugged and said, “Oh, it’s just boy stuff.”
The summer before Don’s murder Michael showed up at my house twice in Autumn’s white pickup to fetch her. The first time he registered as a tall, strong man, in shorts and a sleeveless tank. He looked like a body builder. His sullenness that day suggested he was in a mood and reminded me of that old phrase, “he’s got rocks in his jaw.” He barely glanced at me when introduced and muttered something impatiently to Autumn about how they had to get going. In an effort to hurry her along, he started pulling weeds, without a word. A little later in the season, he and Autumn were hired to do some yard work across the street for my neighbors, cutting and pulling out stubborn old bamboo canes along their foundation. It was hard work, but Michael was strong and quick, and soon the bamboo was stacked along the edge of the street. I remember thinking he looked more at ease, and Autumn waved in greeting. She looked happy.
Shortly after, I was walking to campus. Autumn was working in the yard across the street. As I passed, she called out cheerily to announce that she and Michael had met another professor in the English department.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
“It’s Don,” she yelled back from her perch on the ground, holding fistfuls of weeds in her gloved hands. “He was so alone; we helped him celebrate his birthday.” And then she uttered the phrase that would haunt me later. She sang out, “Michael just loves him!”
I never mentioned to Don that I knew Autumn and Michael. I wanted to respect his right to have a private life, and not to feel, as I so often did, caught in this social honeycomb of small town life- the way those waxy walls can close in on you.
The social politics around Don’s murder were hard to ignore. Almost all of those here identifying as part of the queer community who circled the wagons on Don’s behalf were white academics. Their concern about Don’s older brother was certainly not unfounded, as Don himself had talked openly about Robert’s homophobia, and their decade-long estrangement. But there were two things I quickly reacted to: the general default attitude that Robert was too ignorant and bigoted to be contacted and that he would not know how to value Don’s writings and would want them destroyed. I disagreed. Certainly from a legal perspective, Robert was the closest kin and the only one who could make certain decisions. But I also couldn’t help wondering where he was and why he hadn’t responded to the police. Still, despite family fissures, I couldn’t believe that Robert would not want to claim Don’s body, and maybe even attend the memorial the department was planning.
It was in this spirit that I emailed him. If he wanted nothing to do with it all, I wanted to hear it from his own lips. And so one evening I sat down to write the words I would later come to regret. Dear Reverend Belton, I am so sorry for the tragic and violent death of your brother Don. I invited him to the memorial and gave him dates and times. Would he like to come? And then I waited.
In less than two hours, an email, written in all caps, appeared in my inbox.
I DON’T KNOW WHAT THIS IS ABOUT. PLEASE CALL ME.
(And a phone number)
This is a story stacked with sorrows: Don, Michael, Don’s family, Michael’s family and son, and Autumn, too. And this doesn’t count the number of us whose lives were thrown into disarray and chaos by the murder. Calling Robert brought back a painful memory of having to inform a friend several years before to inform her that our dear friend Nancy had been killed in a car crash.
Robert and I spent several gut-wrenching hours on the phone that night, talking, with both of us eventually weeping. No, no one had called him. He didn’t even know Don was living in Bloomington. And he certainly had no idea Don was dead. All I could say was how sorry I was. “What happened?” he kept saying. “What happened to Don?” I kept things simple at first to allow Robert time to absorb the blow. “He was attacked by a friend in his house,” I said. “They’d had an argument.” Then I asked if I could take a minute to call the detective in charge and let him know how to contact Robert. In turn, the detective called the coroner to say the body would be claimed after all, and then he called Robert. After they’d talked, it was Robert’s turn to phone me. “I heard such ugly things,” he said bitterly, “what they said Don did. Is any of this true? I don’t understand.” I begged him not to think about that now, that Don was not here to explain things. “But my brother wouldn’t hurt anyone,” Robert insisted over and over. He began to sob. I said I agreed, that I didn’t think Don had a violent bone in his body.
“I’d always hoped to see him again, to set things right between us,” Robert said. He wanted me to know he wasn’t anti-homosexual; it was just that he and his brother just didn’t always see eye to eye. I asked him if he would come to Bloomington. He told me, “Yes, but I never heard of Bloomington, and I didn’t even known Don was there. I’m going to have to get out a map.” I called the department chair to see if we could pay for Robert’s ticket and hotel room. Arrangements were made. In a few days, Robert would fly out to a place he didn’t even know existed to claim the body of the estranged brother he’d always expected to see again.
The three long, surreal days Robert and I spent together while he was in Bloomington can be distilled in certain moments: how he strode up to me in his full-length leather coat and hat in the restaurant where I arranged to meet him and gave me a bear hug as if we were old friends; how as we talked over dinner he reminded me of the charming, bad-boy older brothers of my girlfriends growing up; and how different he was from Don, and yet there were glimpses of familial traits—the quick wit, certain expressions. How I phoned an attorney friend who generously agreed to handle the estate after Robert and I met with him at the crack of dawn one morning. How the unsympathetic landlord met us on the porch of Don’s house and before opening the door announced two things: one, that he hoped Robert knew he would be responsible for paying Don’s now overdue rent, and two, that we should prepare ourselves as the place was a mess. How when Robert walked into Don’s house, he stopped cold in the living room and sank into a chair. “I can’t do this,” he said. How the funeral home mistakenly labeled the box of Don’s ashes as belonging to Donald (a slip that would have outraged Don).How the sentimental memorial service, packed with well-meaning acquaintances, seemed to alienate Robert (“I don’t see Don here,” he kept whispering to me, and I felt the same way.), which I know wasn’t the point. How I drove Robert to Don’s office on campus and left him there to sit quietly at Don’s desk for a while, looking out at the same view I have from my office. Since I could not manage my own sorrow, I focused on Robert. And in this way I think I managed to be a better friend to Don in death than in life.
After Robert left Bloomington carrying home a small box containing the remains of his brother, I asked a coworker to help me begin the painstaking work of going through Don’s things, sorting family memorabilia (Don was a collector, and these were his treasures!) from professional writings, carefully placing his beautifully decorated journals into boxes for safe keeping. And what to do with the hundreds of books lining his shelves? The task was overwhelming. Don had, of course, died intestate, leaving more uncertainties about what to do next. Ironically, all of the stuff he’d been carting around from place to place all these years—his precious treasures, the objects that meant so much to him, everything from piles of unwritten post cards to political buttons–—sat unclaimed in his little rental house. At one point we came across a photo of a much younger Don with what we guessed must have been a boyfriend. They were posed, smiling, with their arms around each other. We both wondered what had become of the young man.
Contrary to what one might think, being inside Don’s house was not at all creepy. And despite what the landlord had told Robert and me, the house was not a mess. It was true the police had been there earlier and confiscated some items, but the house appeared to be waiting for Don to return. The only hint of disruption was a section of ripped out linoleum on the kitchen floor where Don had fallen after the attack. Against the wall was a string mop standing in a bucket of soapy water. To the casual onlooker it might appear to be a small disruption, a minor repair in progress.
Sometimes my coworker and I would hang out in the bright kitchen, just inches from where Don was murdered, and talk. Neither of us ever referred to what had taken place near where we stood or the missing linoleum or the mop and bucket.
And the empty little suitcase on the bed? It sat there like bookmark holding Don’s life in place, suggesting he’d just run out for an errand and would be right back.
Each night after driving away from Don’s house, car loaded with boxes to drop off at the lawyer’s, I’d return home through snowy streets to my desperately lonely animals. My own life seemed to be vanishing. With trepidation, I’d check email updates and phone messages from two of my brothers who took turns visiting my mother in the hospital. More doctors and nurses, more diagnoses, tests, and procedures. I stopped reading the details. The enormous quantity of details of my father’s illness and death had taken their toll. For now, I kept it simple. Is she going to be okay? That’s all I wanted to know. The pneumonia was big trouble. She was severely ill. Even the doctor told her she needed to get out of there as soon as she could before they killed her. I kept thinking I should go to her. I should get in the car and go. But I couldn’t. I was wrung out from the swirls of tragedy, neck-deep in teaching again, and beginning to realize that I couldn’t save anyone. People die every day. They die whether you want them to or not.
Even if we don’t know it, we all live close to danger. Life is always a risk. In my own, I could tick off numerous close calls: the stranger who pointed a gun at me and ordered me into his car (I didn’t go); the two men, who under the pretext of driving me home from a friend’s, pulled into an underground garage and threatened rape; the boat driver in Guam I paid to take me out to snorkel on a coral reef who tried to assault me; the nutty Australian guy who was studying black magic and stalked me until a Balinese couple came to my rescue; the child murderer who attempted to lure me into his car when I was nine; the man who molested me in the neighbor’s house when I was five; and the list goes on. Oh, and of course, the crazy military guy in my class who stalked me in Hawaii with escalating rage. What is the message here? That you never let your guard down, that you live life with eyes in the back of your head? That you never trust yourself to be in the world? For me, the answer is simple. Both trusting others and taking chances have also led me to some of the most wonderfully enriching experiences of my life.
I passed through the days like a divided person. Each detailed email report from my meticulous brother on my mother’s progresses and setbacks served to normalize sickness and death. The effect was numbing and became like reading about the weather. Sickness, death. Inevitable and always there. Each day that I met with my students I spoke in someone else’s calm, measured voice. They had no idea that I was behind a curtain and sending someone else out to stand on the stage. There were times I couldn’t remember how I actually got from one place to the next or what I said. Many things went undone. Eventually, my mother improved and was able to leave the hospital alive. But it was months and months before I would see her, and even more months before I could cry again. Maybe even a year. Maybe two. I don’t remember. All I remember is the flatness of my mind, and how gray the world was.
A year and a half later, as spring began its uncontrollable blossoming, Michael’s trial date was finally set. I was called to testify as the final character witness for the prosecution. The details of the actual day remain startling clear, beginning with the moment I entered the tiny, cramped courtroom in the Justice Building. They ushered me past Don’s friends and Michael’s family, all crammed in among one another, as if we were all gathering at a reunion. I followed instructions to head past the jury to the witness stand. It took me a moment to orient myself. The room was so small and densely packed. As the judge asked me to raise my right hand, my eyes locked with Michael’s. He was sitting, just feet away, slumped between his two defense attorneys, a man and a woman, each dressed in a suit. Michael was also in a suit but looked so much smaller, more like a child playing dress-up than a grown man. I was reminded of what Don wore to his interview, the suit and the bow tie, and how small Don had also seemed that day. Only Don had been animated and excited, the door to his life opening.
The woman defense attorney struck me as both smug and antagonistic. On cross-examination, she strutted back and forth in front of the jury in high-heeled shoes, plying me with questions that seemed designed to implicitly put Don on trial and convince the jury that Don was a predator who took advantage of younger people and, by default, perhaps even deserved what he got. Question after question focused on my age, my profession, how long I’d known Don, what our relationship was, how many times he’d visited my house, and so on. I answered each without fanfare. The foundation she was trying to lay was so obvious I sat waiting for my chance. I let her mistake the simplicity of my responses for stupidity. The room came into sharper focus. The more the defense attorney talked, the more I felt a strange kind of calm settle over me.
“Did Don ever hit on you?” she asked, turning swiftly on her heels to stare at me. Of course not, I replied. She gave a little flip of her hair and asked why not.
I said, “Because we were work colleagues and friends.”
“And did Don ever spend the night at your house?” she asked.
“No, there was no reason for him to.”
“And why not?”
“Because we both lived in town, and he was just minutes away, not half an hour, so there would be no need,” I said, alluding to the reason Don would have been invited to stay over at Autumn and Michael’s place outside of town. She frowned, but went on, caught up in the momentum of her own performance.
“And wouldn’t you also say that Don didn’t hit on you because as a woman you are not his sexual preference?” And she turned to face the jury, with a triumphant smile. But here’s where she miscalculated. I remember the way time decelerated, giving me what I’d been waiting for, delivered like an underhanded slow ball. She had made the lawyer’s fatal mistake of asking a witness a question to which she herself did not know the answer.
And so when I answered no, instead of yes, she spun around again.
“No?” she almost shouted. “No?” And by the expression on her face, I could tell she thought she was catching me in a lie.
“No,” I said, again looking beyond her, and out to the whole courtroom, taking in Michael, his family, Don’s friends, and the jury. “I can’t say at all that I wasn’t Don’s sexual preference. That’s because I don’t presume to know anyone’s sexual preference. Human sexuality isn’t fixed, its fluid, and operates on a spectrum.” And then I looked right at Michael, including him, too.
You could have heard a pin drop. In the front, heads began to nod. I will never forget the flush that rose to the defense attorney’s face, and her hasty dismissal of me. “That will be all,” she stammered, before striding back to her seat, miffed.
I felt an odd relief. The trial ended with my testimony. The jury spent the next ten hours debating until almost midnight. I kept checking for updates. A friend called to say that at six o’clock the jury asked to see the coroner’s report again. This was a good sign, I thought. After all, the coroner had called Don’s murder the most violent death he’d ever seen. The jury would review again the twenty-two stab wounds, the damaged organs, and the desperate attempts of Don to ward off Michael’s blade. They would re-live Don’s death blow by blow, just as I had over this last year, all the nights I’d fallen asleep with Michael’s hand rising again and again, while in my confusion I began mistaking Don’s danger for my own.
Despite words like “closure” and phrases like “justice has been served,” the verdict of murder did not end the grief. Don’s family posted statements of both forgiveness and sorrow on a website a friend developed to keep everyone up to date. If “justice” means the administration of a punishment, I suppose then, Michael received some form of justice, but it’s well known that punishment and justice are not the same. And if conviction means “moral rightness,” I’m not sure what was moral or right about the options the law made available to the jurors that night. The trial served to distill the lives of two mother’s sons into convenient narratives of bad and good, the victim and the criminal, in pursuit of what we call “truth.” Like the end of a movie, we can all go home and sleep at night, safe in the knowledge that the tear in fabric of community life has been sewn shut.
At midnight, when jury returned a verdict of murder, and not voluntary manslaughter (Indiana does not recognize degrees of murder), I recognized the symbolic value. It meant the jury understood that neither Don, nor his race nor his sexual orientation, was on trial. It also allowed for what many of us believed to be true that Michael, a troubled man with possibly ambiguous sexual orientation had viciously killed Don in cold blood. People asked if I was happy. How to explain? Relieved yes, but happy? Happy would mean that Don had never died. Happy would mean that Michael hadn’t fought in Iraq and lost his mind, though no official diagnosis of PTSD was ever presented at the trial. Happy would be that we lived in a society in which no one cares who has sex with whom, and that masculinity is not so narrowly configured that men have to go out and kill to prove they aren’t attracted to each other. A month later, at his final hearing, Michael was sentenced to fifty-five years, minus time served, and credited two days for every day of good behavior served. Don dead, Michael put away.
The irony is that the pacifist Don would never have wanted to see Michael in prison, a fact which Autumn herself pointed out when she phoned me a few days after the trial.
“Aloha and bless Mother Earth” was her greeting. She was relieved to have caught up with me and I, while surprised, was more than curious.
She was calling from Hawaii, where she’d fled to “get away from it all,” she explained. I was out in my yard, a place she and I had spent several days together. The weeds were taking over again as they always did after the spring rains. I didn’t think I’d heard right. You’re in Hawaii? Yes, she said, voice rising in excitement, the same place Don was going. What a coincidence, isn’t it, she added. She was calling, she said, to ask a favor and clear some things up. The favor was that she wondered if I could ask the Webmaster of the Don Belton site to take off all the references to her name. She was trying to look for work, and felt the bad press was damaging. I gently reminded her that her name was everywhere, in the news, and on blogs, and that it would be very difficult to control the information, but I would ask. She went on. She wanted me to know that even though she and Michael had over their time together experimented with group sex, she wasn’t gay, and that all their experimentation had been with women (this, to eliminate any speculation that Michael was interested in men, I suppose). Because of the tragedy (as she would repeatedly refer to Don’s murder throughout the conversation), she planned to give up group sex and find one man and love him forever. She said it was also important to her to let me know she had “nothing against gay people,” even though when questioned on the stand she had apparently made flagrant homophobic comments. I was just angry, she said, and she mentioned several other people she intended to apologize to, including a mutual transgendered acquaintance. I assured her that I hadn’t heard about her testimony on the stand, as I was not allowed to attend the trial, and that I was the last person she needed to apologize to. I meant it.
She wanted to explain, because it was important to her that I know, how Don had violated both her and Michael, in their home. I asked what she meant, but she pulled back. She didn’t want to “get into all that.” So I posed the question that had plagued so many of us in our grief-ridden conversations over the last year and a half. If Don had committed an act as dreadful as rape, why didn’t she and Michael call the police and report it? Because I said, if Don really did what you say he did, he should have been arrested immediately. Oddly, she agreed they could have handled things differently. She moved on to how they’d all three had breakfast that morning after, and how she had confronted Don. She said he denied any wrongdoing, and that he kept denying it the whole time she drove him back home, and it upset her so much that he wouldn’t admit what he had done that she didn’t know what to do. Time passed, during which she and Michael talked about the situation and had sex. I didn’t point out that given the violence described, it all seemed so strange—first breakfast and the lift home, and all the time to reflect, not to mention the amount of time that passed before Michael got into the white truck to drive to Don’s two days later.
And that’s when she said the words that I will never forget: “You know, Don wouldn’t want Michael to go to prison. He doesn’t believe in prison.” She paused. “Don doesn’t believe in war. He and Michael had that in common. Don’s a Buddhist. And he thinks too many people are incarcerated. His brother Robert spent time in prison, and Don is against prison.”
It was striking to hear Don spoken of in the present tense. I started to say, “Autumn, Don is dead. There is no Don any more. Don is a ‘was’.” But I didn’t. So instead I told her I probably should go and wished her well. But first, I added a detail I had told no one else. That was the fact that shortly after Michael’s arrest, I had looked into mailing Michael one of my favorite books on Buddhism, but the jail didn’t allow printed materials to be sent. Then I said something like, “Please take care, Autumn, and I’m really, honestly sorry for everyone.” And I meant it. From the bottom of my heart.
This summer, I met another gardener who could help me keep my weeds at bay. But when she arrived, I went into the house and let her work alone. Occasionally from the window I’d glimpse a straw hat moving slowly across the beds and, for a moment, I’d forget and think it was Autumn. But unlike Autumn, who loved to talk, this woman was quiet, content to plug into music through her ear buds. Autumn would eventually leave Hawaii and return to Bloomington, and to Michael, who would plead his verdict to a higher appeals court and manage to get his sentence reduced by a few years.
It’s fall again. A new faculty member has moved into Don’s office. The students who knew and loved Don have all graduated and moved away. We’ve made a new fiction hire whose office is just three doors down from mine and to whom people would occasionally refer as “Don’s replacement.”
Don’s house is rented out again. I have no idea who lives there but wonder if they know. And I wonder if you can ever really patch linoleum.
When I catch sight of Don’s landlord at the co-op, I deliberately turn down a different aisle to avoid him. I’m finally able to look my colleagues in the eye again and to move on with our collective business.
It would be a tidy way to end this by writing that I listen, in Don’s memory, to his Diana Ross CDs and that when I teach and re-read Baldwin I think of Don, and all the conversations we could have had. But I don’t. The CDs sit on the shelf. I already loved Diana, but there are also things I love more. Baldwin will always be my Baldwin, not Don’s.
As time passes, the real Don, whoever he was, gets further away. He is the occasional shadow in the hall. Sometimes a colleague mentions him, as a friend of mine did the other day when I told him I liked his pink shirt. He said, “Don did, too.”
Thinking back to that stretch of time is akin to walking down a long, black corridor with ceilings that get incrementally lower and a floor that grows narrower. I remember only this: how, starting with my father’s first hospitalizations all the way down that corridor to the aftermath of Don’s murder, disaster became the norm. And how I kept believing I was doing something, as I drove too fast through torrential rains, ran endless errands, lost sleep, packed boxes, took photos of the tubes stuck in my sister’s veins, as if warding off tragedy. My mother, my sister, Don’s brother Robert, all the people who hurt so badly became conduits for my own hurts.
When I was five, a childhood friend who lived across the alley died on her sixth birthday in a house fire that killed half her family; as a teenager, the boyfriend of a friend of mine strangled her to death in bed, with his belt, to shut her up; an old boyfriend committed suicide by drowning himself in a reservoir near my parents’ house; another boyfriend killed himself, years later, by hanging. A childhood friend grew up and murdered her abusive boyfriend (I testified at her trial). My ex-sister-in-law was doused in gasoline and set on fire by a female friend in a violent disagreement over drugs. A nephew was shot in a drive-by in Oakland. But I had never before known anyone who was stabbed to death. There is an intimacy to a knife murder. Not only is there the proximity of body to body, but as with any penetration, you feel the give of the other’s flesh in your own.
Following Don’s murder, I became obsessed. My Netflix queue was stuffed with as many true-crime documentaries and dramas I could find. Gunshot deaths I skipped over. Too distant and impersonal. Give me a victim strangled, thrown out of a window, stabbed in a bathtub, run over by a car. Petechial hemorrhage, GSR, lividity, and blood spatter took on their own gruesome poetry. Bodies telling their own stories in hair fibers, rigor, and stomach contents. Over and over, I imagined blade on flesh, blade in flesh. What was it like, the moment their eyes locked and both realized that one of them was dying?
Those dark winter months after the murder, I grew uncharacteristically withdrawn and vigilant. It was like living in a secret world. I looked forward to the end of the day when clicking on a new crime episode led me into increasingly sensational but familiar terrain that no longer shocked or repelled. It functioned like a sedative. Male victims were interesting only if they were children, or gay, or transgendered. Women’s bodies, despite being aestheticized and sexualized even in death, were like my body. Often stripped naked, they were posed with legs splayed, and necks bruised and ligatured. Don’s body was vulnerable, too, and his fear of violence was real. His obsession with wanting to feel safe in Bloomington hung heavy with premonition. At night, my TV screen filled up with victims of brutality, sexual assault, torture, and their wounded breasts, hearts, organs, brains, hands, and feet. Never the hidden parts, like the unreachable soul, heart, or intellect, but the visible parts that others wound and tear apart in rage. It was oddly comforting. Maybe because the damage was so visible, I could actually see what was being done. Maybe because when it was over, I was still alive.
Over time, as winter turned to spring and spring to summer, an odd thing happened. I began to cry for my father, mostly at unexpected moments, like when driving out of a parking lot or walking my dog. When I say cry, I don’t mean a few tears. It would start with a quick catch in my throat, before an animal wail erupted in the chest, followed by convulsive inhales and an explosion of tears. At first, I was confused and thought I was weeping for Don. And then it occurred to me I was finally crying for my father. And maybe for all the other things stuffed deep down inside. And I was crying not just for what my father and I had together, but also for what we never had. His death ended the possibility that we would ever really know each other in the way I had hoped to be known. On his deathbed, full of tubes, and looking small and vulnerable, he turned and stared straight into my eyes one evening and remarked, “I know I wasn’t much of a father.” It shocked me. And it broke my heart. I quickly countered, saying how that wasn’t true, that he’d been a great father, and in some ways he was. I thought how if he hadn’t been dying, we might actually have talked more about how absent he was when I was a kid, how much I missed him when he was gone. How music should have brought us closer, but ultimately seemed to separate us. And how I wanted to sing, just as he had, and would sometimes belt out a song just hoping he’d hear and take an interest. Over the years, I have sung a lot, in youth choirs, alone with recordings, solo in the shower, with the car radio. During the week in Don’s house I often sang while sorting through his things. It was easy to imagine Don singing with me, the way we had that day downtown when our arms were locked together. When my father died, his music died with him. The nurse told me one night she had stood on the threshold of his room, feeling like an intruder. In the bed lay my mother in my father’s arms, and they were softly singing a duet. It was for no one but themselves. The nurse promptly left.
I remain convinced that Don never suspected the danger he was in that snowy winter day. As I know from my own life, there is an ordinariness to peril. One day you’re just going about your business when it accosts you. Don would have been imagining the warm Honolulu beaches awaiting him, feeling briefly free of worries about tenure and the book he was afraid he would not finish. A peaceful morning, full of hope.
Hawaii—the place where my own life collided with that of a violent stranger—would have fit right in with the cautionary tales of gritty crime shows, a disturbed but charming psychopath who was enrolled in a class I was teaching to military personnel, and who generously offered to show me around Honolulu, much to the insistence of the entire class. Hawaii is a dream of blue waters and sandy beaches. That is the dream that never materialized for Don. He died imagining it as paradise, just as he had imagined Bloomington to be his home.
I obviously wasn’t there the day Don died. I was not the one who found his body. That sad task was left to a friend and neighbor who came across Don lying on his kitchen floor, looking for the entire world asleep, except for the pool of blood. This is how unknowing slowly transforms into a kind of knowledge. And though none of these losses will ever make sense, I can say this. For a time, learning exactly how steel works its way into flesh, deep through organs and into arteries, how easily veins tear open, and blood spatters across walls and floors, how quickly lungs expire, I was able to feel beyond my own fragility and the way the world can freeze in a moment. Over time, the shiny knife blade became as familiar as a hand, reminding me that each fresh jolt of pain is a way to prove, again and again, that I am here.