Richard Krause’s collection of fiction, Studies in Insignificance, was published by Livingston Press and his epigram collection, Optical Biases, was published by Eyecorner Press in Denmark. Propertius Press has accepted his second collection of epigrams, Eye Exams. His fiction has more recently appeared in The Alembic, The Long Story, J Journal, Red Savina Review, and Eastlit. Oddville Press and Brilliant Flash Fiction have also
accepted his fiction. He teaches at Somerset Community College in Kentucky.
Out of State Plates or
Why did he come to me? It would just involve all of us. No one would be free, everyone would be implicated even if you were not born yet. That doesn’t stop the guilt leaping generations. In fact it is in everyone deep down. The least suspecting don’t get a free pass. I impressed upon him that he didn’t and he admitted it. Yes, he was part of it. So was I. We all are as distant and heinous and unthinkable as it was, they all were. He had touched something in me; that is why I endured the two hours, didn’t cut him off when it got too gruesome. In fact it must have entertained me, well, that’s not the word, absorbed is closer. It soaked into me like a spreading stain, like body fluids that include everybody, carefully drained, wiped up, or left spilled carelessly. There were thirty-two to be exact, he said, and there may be more.
He was sent to me because I was recommended by two people. They said I was the one he needed to see about the structure, about shaping the material, his seven years of research. He said he took to it like he was involved, then he stopped talking and mused. It was over a half century ago that they took place.
He admitted he didn’t know why exactly he was drawn to it. It could have been the Black Dahlia but he didn’t want to get involved with Mickey McCarthy, or his family, he said. He knows Mickey’s dead, but still his family is alive. No, he said. This seemed cleaner and the horror deeper. Or was I thinking that after he described his research?
He had wanted to be a State trooper, or in the medical profession, he said. But then his cousin after a few weeks on the job got into a gunfight and almost got killed and that changed his mind, and so he said this is the closest thing.
“I enjoy digging into old records, police files, FBI reports, newspapers, True Detective magazines reconstructing these crimes. They happened in one area,” he said, “well two, in a straight line between Cleveland and east of Pittsburgh in New Castle.”
“And you did the background checks, the leg work?”
“Yes, I searched the railroad records, many are destroyed or incomplete, or stored in different locations, I hunted them all down. I’ve been at it for seven years.”
“There were all these murders,” he said.
“Of whom?” I asked.
“Transients. They had no names, except for two, or maybe three we have names for.”
“There must have been many more,” I said.
“Yes, but the way they were killed. That’s the thing. Their heads were all cut off,” he said.
“Yes, and disarticulated.”
“What else? The genitals?”
“Yes,” he said, “and they’d take off arms and legs, and use a red chemical on some, burned off their fingerprints. They’d be placed in separate bags, or thrown in the river. That was his profile.”
“And this is between 1921 and 1950,” he said.
“Thirty years is the vital part of a man’s life. When he does his life’s work.”
“Yes,” he said.
“Were there women?”
“About a quarter were women. Jane Does.”
“Were there any signs of sexuality, semen?”
“No,” he said.
“But it must have been sexual, too.”
“The genitalia was removed on the males. Sometimes they were just tossed nearby.”
“Any breasts on the women.”
“No, they were intact.”
“And these were all transients?”
“Yes, drifters. I tracked down the death certificates. They were unknown except for like I said two, or three. One was a prostitute, the other a pimp. The third she was black, but other than the one there is no evidence it was racial.”
“And it happened all along the railway line?”
“Yes, between Cleveland, Ohio and Newcastle, outside Pittsburgh. The trains ran between the two cities twice a day. Thirteen were found in New Castle and twelve in Cleveland.”
“The twelve murders between 1935 and 1938 were credited to the Cleveland Torso Murderer, also called the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run, an area of overgrown weeds, piles of garbage, abandoned cars and makeshift frame houses. Kingsbury Run was called prime real estate for hobos, and one area was famous for whorehouses and gambling. The victims were drifters from the lower class found in the Jackass Hill area.”
“The first one Edward Andressy was a known drunk who procured young girls for prostitution and admitted having male lovers. He died from decapitation. He was alive at the time, bound hand and foot and struggled violently. The second was a John Doe, and the third victim, Florence Polillo, was called a local drunk and prostitute. Her head was never found but a hand in a bundle made identity possible. The fourth and fifth were John and Jane Does decapitated alive, their heads were never recovered. Neither was the sixth victim’s head found. One Jane Doe called Lady of the Lake was discovered on the shores of Lake Erie, but her head was missing. Some dubbed her victim zero. The next Jane Doe was the only black victim. She was found under the Lorain-Carnegie bridge. A rib was missing but the head was recovered. She was later identified as Rose Wallace from dental records.”
“John Doe VII and Jane Doe VIII were pulled out of the Cuyahoga River but their heads were never found. A Jane and John Doe were found in the Lake Shore Dump. The latter’s head was found in a can. One of the John Does was called the ‘Tattoo man.’ He had six tattoos on his body, the name ‘Helen and Paul’ on one tattoo, and initials W.C.G. in another. On his undershorts were the initials J.D. His morgue and death mask were seen by over a hundred thousand people at the Great Lakes Exposition in Cleveland in 1936, but nobody ever identified him.”
“The murders in New Castle, Pennsylvania and in boxcars near McKees Rocks took place in 1936 and 1940. Bodies were also found in nearby swamps between 1921 and 1934 and 1936 and 1942. The so-called Murder Swamp Killer was credited by the New Castle News with 17 murders, almost identical with the Cleveland, Ohio murders. All appeared connected with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad line. A decapitated body was found in Cleveland as late as 1950, he was a man living on the fringe of society with a drinking problem.”
“The New Castle junction where the homeless squatted in cardboard boxes and shacks was a swampy nightmare called Hell’s Half Acre by the locals. There were murky pools, tangled underbrush and slime covered bogs. Officials believed the New Castle killings were planned, not crimes of opportunity. The killer was thought to be strong and skilled with a knife or a saw who knew the swamp and didn’t worry about the discovery of the bodies. Like in Cleveland the skilled decapitation indicated medical training. Authorities thought there was one killer. None of the New Castle victims were identified. In one boxcar where a headless corpse was found there were two newspapers from the Pittsburgh Press and Cleveland Plain Dealer linking the two areas. That the victims were often mutilated and the males usually were castrated made police think the killer was bisexual.”
“The police often went undercover into hobo jungles and into the rail yards of New Castle where vagrants had tents and wood shacks. In 1940 when the three men in boxcars were found, on the chest of one of them ‘NAZI’ was scrawled.”
“They all fit the same profiles, and the others I discovered along the rail lines. I found information about those not previously linked. I made another discovery of my own that was overlooked. The boxcars had numbers with white lines drawn through them. No one ever questioned that. These were cars destined for McKees Rocks to be destroyed. Here’s a photograph of one of them, detectives taking out the body parts wrapped in burlap bags.”
“Oh, and something else,” he paused and said, “The women were treated differently. There was no signs of sexual mutilation but the women were bisected,” he said, “and later there were some males that were.”
“They were cut in half at the waist.”
“It must have been someone skilled, a physician,” I said.
“Maybe,” he said, “at least someone with medical training.”
“Couldn’t this be sexual?”
He didn’t know, he said. One of the victims was mentioned as being homosexual.
“It could have been the sexuality gone awry, someone who doesn’t accept themselves killing someone like himself.”
“It seems it was territorial,” he said. “That was the way with transients. Food and space were jealously protected.”
“Yes, the times were difficult in the Great Depression. But that the crimes were similar is fascinating.”
“Yes, there seems to be a progression, the bisecting didn’t come until later.”
“This is the worst kind of crime, physically. You can destroy someone emotionally, psychologically, but physically it doesn’t get any worse than cutting off their head and genitals.”
“Yes,” he said, “and erasing the fingerprints.”
“There must have been tremendous anger, or else breathtaking detachment, the absence of any feeling, to do this over thirty years, assuming it is the same person, and the profile of the killings appears to be. Why are you interested in this?”
He was a tall, strong man, exceedingly polite. He had a beard that didn’t
disguise his relative youth, yet he seemed burdened by the crimes, but his broad shoulders looked more than capable of carrying all the bad news.
“I can’t understand it myself, but I can’t get my mind off of it. All the victims, the secrecy, the questions, they haunt me like a mystery that I have to deal with.”
“The injustice of never finding the killer?”
“Yes, that’s it, but at the same time I seem to know him intimately, though I wasn’t even born yet, but it is as if I carry him around with me, so that every movement could at any moment reveal something, when I am eating breakfast, or with my girlfriend, or right before I fall asleep, then it is sometimes the worst, even when I’m sitting in a restaurant alone someone will look suspicious and I imagine there’s a clue there. No matter where I am I’m thinking about it. It’s a relief even to talk about it. I can’t tell you how many nights I just lay there staring at the ceiling imagining different scenarios. My girlfriend thinks I’m lucky that I found something I love.”
“You are,” I said, but thought how odd that she accepted such a bizarre passion,
an alternate love interest. I almost wanted to say “mistress.”
“Do you feel somehow responsible uncovering all of this?” I suddenly asked.
He looked at me, steadying his gaze.
“Yes,” he said. “I want to identify the person responsible.”
“And the transients,” I said. “Are you interested in them?”
“Yes,” he said. “I need some justice, to find who did this to them. Tell their story, who ended their lives so disgracefully, and why that haunts me I don’t entirely know. Detective Merlyo wrote a book. He was Eliot Ness’s hire. He was on the case for eight years, but he never quite came up with anyone. He rode the trains between Cleveland and Pittsburgh disguised for years obsessing over the killer. I can understand him. The case almost drove him crazy, spending every free moment to track him down. He wrote that he began to see the killer everywhere, in every inadvertent gesture, half-feint, in the least inappropriate smile or packed in someone’s look of disgust. There were two people of interest at the time, one was charged.”
“The prime suspect for the murder was an Irish doctor, Francis E. Sweeney. His family was poor and he lost his father and mother at a young age. In World War I he received a severe head injury and worked as a medic learning about amputations. He received a partial disability pension when he returned to the States and worked his way through medical school in St. Louis. He became a surgical resident at St. Alexis hospital close to the Kingsbury Run area in Cleveland. He married in 1927, but was estranged by 1933. His wife filed for divorce in 1936. Sweeney had a drinking problem and he was alleged to have been abusive towards his wife and two children. Rumor had it that he was also bisexual. Sweeney was a large, strong man, some say powerful enough to carry the body of Edward Andrassy down the steep embankment of Jackass Hill in Kingsbury Run. Others said he was too soft to ride the rails between Cleveland and New Castle. In fact he was briefly associated with the Raus Funeral Home that had a laboratory where such things might have taken place. I even went there, but all I found was a vacant lot.”
“When Cleveland Mayor Harold Burton put Eliot Ness on the Kingsbury Run case Ness confined Sweeney for more than ten days in the old Cleveland Hotel. It took three days for Sweeney to dry out, and then two polygraph tests were administered in secret and Sweeney failed twice. The inventor of the polygraph Leonard Keeler gave the tests and told Ness, ‘That’s your man.’ But Ness had no hard evidence to hold him. Sweeney’s brother Congressman Martin Sweeney was Mayor Burton’s political enemy. He objected to the Ness investigation. Martin Sweeney was also friends with Cuyahoga County Sheriff Martin O’Donnell who then engineered the arrest of Frank Dolezal, a Bohemian bricklayer, for the murder of Flo Polillo. Dolezal had lived with Polillo for a time. He knew Andrassy and the third identified victim, the petite black woman named Rose Wallace whose torso was washed up on Lake Erie.”
“Frank Dolezal confessed giving precise details as if he were coached. Before the trial he was found hanged in his cell. The autopsy revealed six broken ribs while he was in custody. Before his apparent suicide he recanted his statements and said he had been beaten until he confessed. The police wanted to close the case and Congressman Sweeney wanted the attention off his family name.”
“Francis Sweeney some said lived precariously, riding the rails as he saw fit and checking himself periodically into mental hospitals. The Cleveland killings stopped once he committed himself just a few days after Ness’s interrogation. But Sweeney would voluntarily leave for days and months at a time. He was known to venture off to other parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania as well. By 1955 Sweeney was committed to Dayton Veterans hospital.
“Even in the Dayton Hospital Sweeney was free to wander around the neighborhood writing prescriptions for himself and friends until the hospital campaigned with the local pharmacists and cut off his drug supply. He finally died there in 1964. Ness had believed until the end he’d identified the Kingsbury Run Butcher and that he’d got away with murder because of his family and political connections. The man who had brought down Al Capone could not bring down the Butcher of Kingsbury Run.”
“Something I found what was not reported. It seems like a new piece of evidence. Sweeney’s house was not far from one of the burial sites outside Cleveland. When he returned from World War I his wife who was divorcing him for heavy drinking got a lawyer to stop his veteran benefits. Soon after a woman was found mutilated. I don’t know if there is a connection.”
“Even Eliot Ness couldn’t solve the case. It destroyed him.”
“That’s where you come in,” I said.
“Yes, Eliot Ness, famous for taking down Al Capone and bootlegger gangs in Chicago, was made Cleveland’s Director of Public Safety in 1934 after Prohibition was repealed. He was in charge of both the city’s police and fire departments. In 1938 two mutilated bodies were discovered in a ravine plainly visible from Ness’s office. It seemed Ness was being purposely taunted. Two days later police raided the shantytown of Kingsbury Run arresting hundreds of vagrants and on Ness’s orders burned the shacks to the ground. Ness received a lot of criticism for that. The murders stopped, but the Cleveland Torso murders were never solved, though many speculated who the Mad Butcher was.”
“Frank Dolezal, by the way, who carried knives and often threatened people when drunk, and who had lived with Flo Polillo, was arrested after a search of his home turned up dried blood. The papers claimed The Butcher was captured. But later the dried blood was determined not to be blood, and his confession was riddled with holes. The Butcher was also loosely linked to Elizabeth Short, or the Black Dahlia murder in L.A. Her body also had been cut in two.”
“Eliot Ness’s career plummeted because he never got over the taint of the unsolved murders on his reputation. The last decade of his life was full of poverty. He who had destroyed the bootlegging gangs ironically became a heavy drinker himself and suffered from poor health. He resigned as Cleveland Public Safety Director after a scandal. In 1947 he ran for Cleveland Mayor and was badly defeated. A year later he was turned down for a $60 a week job.”
“Sweeney wrote rambling letters and sent post cards to Eliot Ness into the 1950s which seemed to implicate him in the Cleveland murders. Ness in his memoirs thought Sweeney’s cousin the U.S. Congressman reached a deal to accept incarceration in a mental hospital.”
“Ness met Oscar Farley towards the end of his life and collaborated on The Untouchables, but its success never reached him as he died at 54 a broken man the same the year the book came out in 1957.”
“The last torso was found in a Cleveland lumber yard in 1950 with head and genitals removed and was said to resemble exactly the torso murderer. I forgot to mention at least three decapitated bodies were discovered in 1925, all had their hands removed, two were male and one female. One journalist commented that the killer simply slipped away and vanished into the mists of time. Some believe that some of the victims still walk the area, and the specter of the Butcher himself may walk there as well, perhaps he never left.”
He then pulled out the seventy pages he had already completed to show me. He was going to write on 22 of the cases, he said. I suggested that he chart where each body was found, the time and the exact type of mutilation to see if he could establish a pattern. He had black and white aerial photos of the places the bodies were found, white dots along the rail lines from Cleveland to Pittsburgh, and additional photos of the police removing bags from the boxcars and the police reports.
“What do you hope for in your research?” I asked.
“Justice,” he repeated, “and to be able to sleep at night. These seven years have been rough. I want to give faces to the unknowns, to those insignificant lives cut so brutally short. Just ordinary people, even if I don’t know their names, or never find them out.”
“But if you could identify the perpetrator?”
“Yes, that would go far towards naming them, if I could identify the killer who disarticulated them, who disgracefully removed their heads or cut their torso in two, methodically removing limbs, and their manhood, depriving them of the two pieces of identification, their fingerprints and face. Who’d cut a woman in half, and why?”
It was as if he, Jack Jackson, were probing himself sitting in my office, with scalpel and clamp, each bit of evidence, cutting away tissue, removing layer after layer of skin, fat, teasing the mesentery free, the muscles snapping from their attachment to bone, the bone ready for the hacksaw, or a simple osteotome. My office was suddenly a laboratory, as if he had already entered the medical profession, his eyes concentrating, beady, even in my office chair telling his story, and his hands I noticed since he came in always moving as if he were somehow reenacting the thirty-two murders, trying to trace back the gestures of the gruesome perpetrator. Nothing he said could slow his hands down. In fact, talking only accelerated his hand movements. I couldn’t tell if he was taking them to heart. His own sympathetic beats joining with the perpetrator’s reenacting the scene, as if he with the victims is frozen in time like Dr. Gross’s medical team in Eakins’ Philadelphia painting over a hundred years ago, but this time with each individual head, limbs, removed, then him standing up, arms akimbo, hovering over his work, looking over himself, his hands covered in blood, his looks pierce his own motivation to follow the path of each and every crime. He unmerges himself, his face, from the murky recesses of old paint. How carefully it not be totally his own fabrication is testified to by painstakingly following the evidence. But he can’t help following himself, the same impulses every human being possesses buried inside a simple murder investigation that unsolved leads back to the investigator. How otherwise can he enter the head of the perpetrator. What must he be party to to disregard all the lost time? He had to be there, by sheer will place himself at each scene with the awful responsibility of bringing everything back into focus. He went to Raus Funeral Home next to Dr. Peterka’s office, a practice he briefly shared with Sweeney to try and reconstruct the lab Sweeney may have had access to but only found thin air.
When we look too deeply into anything we follow, we can’t help it. We find ourselves, not sitting, thinking, absently observing, but an outright participant sucked into the murderer’s heart muscle, beating frantically out of control; we are deep inside his brain for the adrenalin rush of what we have not yet discovered about ourselves, recreating our worst nightmares, our most private moments, attributing to ourselves those substitutes just so we can find out. Yes, it was his own humiliation too following so many heinous murders that he internalized, following what had happened to him so that he too unwittingly took part. He probably didn’t even know it, but it was reflected in his inability to sleep, to sit still, to stop moving even sitting in my office telling his story, to even stop investigating so many outrages to the human body, multiplied, that was unprecedented, how could someone fifty years later internalize them and then carry on even the semblance of a normal life these past seven years? Lucky! No, he was cursed. How could the girlfriend not be affected, I mused. She must have known she was short-changed, must have glimpsed the stranger in him popping up, what he was turning into, and that in the end she must have known she too was dead meat. These were not simple murders he was investigating, but the most profound outrages to the human body on record.
They involved her, as an innocent victim, partner to lucubrations she gave
the impression of admiring. How could one person possibly endure them, without reliving each disarticulation, feeling a twinge in his own bicep, or forearm? How could he look at his woman on the other side of the bed intact, all in one piece? The word “disarticulation” he pronounces with such precision it seemed eerie. It distanced what he thought only brought him closer, the horror of so many profoundly senseless removals of body parts. Not even thinking about the heads! Anyone would wait for the blood to flow after the so-called disarticulation. It blindsided every cut that we are equipped ourselves to avoid. Like unexpected paper cuts. But the blood still comes as if out of nowhere intent on its own ferocity.
“Some of the victims were drained elsewhere,” he suddenly said.
It reminds us of what’s inside everyone, ready and poised, begging to surface, to bead or spurt. He must have felt distanced from the actual cutting, but perhaps sought relief talking about it in my office. But I knew otherwise, we all do, intimately. There is little access until someone like this gentleman, what’s his name, yes, Jack Jackson, walks into your life, your office, whose very name almost begs you to overlook the incest. After all this is Kentucky where an unspoken admission of bloodline is always one remove from polite conversation.
These are not simple murders, they are violations of all men and women, the
sanctity of bodies we live with and struggle with daily. These violations were so stupendous that the mouth dropped like we were only a cut or two away from chunks of ham, what one person thought she identified when she discovered body parts in a burlap sack--the same ham on platters we carve up at Thanksgiving or Christmas. What sharp tools mercilessly cut off the heads, arms, legs, and penises, plied through the resistant muscle, to bone with osteotome and hacksaw in a hidden laboratory where some concluded he performed his gruesome rituals, then dumped the bodies off. Bodies he was strong enough to carry. Could it all be in this gentleman’s brain, this Jack Jackson? Is that the reason for his investigation? And why am I listening to him, for what I find in myself?
His hands are still moving fast, and I notice too shaky leg syndrome. He doesn’t even know it. He has to be up to something. I slide the truckles of my chair noiselessly back, just a hair. I don’t want him to notice. I am ready for something. I don’t know what he is after with this avalanche of information. Maybe to be buried myself in accusations. His politeness is suspicious as if he is hiding something else. Is he really only coming to seek advice? Can it be as simple as that?
I know that he must tell someone, get it off his chest, seven years of it. I know too the mild boastfulness that accompanies his narrative. But what remains is who could have cut those women’s bodies in half, and men’s too. What centaur dreams dominated the perpetrator? It’d be mythical were it not so gruesome. But everyone knows mythology is sanitized, has to be cleaned up to be passed on. Just where do those distorted shapes in Satanic books come from? Is it something universal that now
struts so pedestrian, crossing cultures, entire oceans, springing up out of the earth centuries, millennia later, walking the streets of Cleveland, of New Castle, tucked in
the most ordinary houses, down basements, or does it spring right out of the cellars, or shantytowns, on the banks of the Cuyahoga River or the shores of Lake Erie? Erie yes, what a wonderful sounding name! Has he made that connection? Is it in the vegetables, the local fruit eaten, the minerals and trace elements that enter the brain, certainly it is in the animals we kill, entangled with all those complex strands of protein. And the cuts were so surprisingly precise, everyone claimed he was no amateur. The limbs weren’t just hacked off, they were surgically removed. You couldn’t tell if anger was involved, molten rage, or the most icy demeanor. The latter is more frightening, making it infinitely harder to detect the trail gone cold.
It is as if Jack Jackson sitting there were probing himself so doggedly that there was not enough room in my office between us; that I was drawn into murders I knew so little about is undeniable. Oddly I found space there, while he was a font of holy water sprinkling what I was trying to bottle so I could feel something proper, a restoration to my own dignity, a defensive sanctity, hearing of all the victims while at the same time something vile still loomed, that I felt contaminated sitting in my own office and that he already was contaminated, or why would he be here polluting my mind with these stories, why would he be so interested in such disgusting treatment of other human beings? Something then whispered in my ear, Justice is not enough. There was something absolutely ghoulish in this string of murders, unified by the B&O Railroad, by the inexorable repetition of the sound of the wheels on train tracks, a rhythm found in our own blood highlighted by his seven year investigation. It stained red any Monopoly board I’d ever play on with my kids. Certainly the four railroads I rarely was interested in anyway.
I moved back even further despite his relative calmness when all at once he stood straight up and his voice grew, deepened remarkably; there was a kind of chill that echoed the imminence of attack, so much stronger than my just sitting there, a willing auditor, soaking up all the gruesome details, the multiple body parts, the severed heads, all seemed to tumble inside me that I strained in my mind stumbling to my feet as if I had a bag over my shoulder. It was all I could do to sit there preserving my demeanor when he stood so precipitously hovering over me that I thought something was going to fall from my bookshelves in response, my mother’s book on witchcraft or Christian Science or her History of Orgies. It was almost as if I were taken unawares and his fervor did not one whit diminished the horror.
It was as if my listening so intently stoked the very flames that brought added detail to each victim, stoked the fervor of his investigation, fueled it, and tapped into the anonymous killer and on into each of his victims, as if something in myself wanted to rise up and challenge him for exactly what I didn’t know, but it had the nature of an assault I couldn’t quite identify but knew it was happening, though I sat there cowardly, timidly, and unmolested. I didn’t go on the attack. I was beaten down by the thirty-two victims, by the overwhelming description, the sharp instances of cutting remarks, even the simple mention of his word “disarticulation” not aimed at me, but it threatened, pointed, brandished itself nevertheless, as if each missing body part had touched me. I recalled how I never liked leaving a knife lying around the kitchen, out in the open, and always felt something in my past might have provoked such an irrational fear.
The unknown perpetrator of these crimes was present, even if only in the pile of research, in the black and white photos of the victims, but that he and I were too somehow part of it. My evening meals I knew would never be the same. No matter what I told my wife and son that night, I could never convey what I felt when a platter of meat was on the table. Who would have thought looking at the two of us in that office that what was unidentified fifty years ago was still present in all its horror, manifested by the most unspeakable crimes before either of us were born, well him anyway, but yet that had found a need inside him to seek justice that he hoped would emerge from this dogged scratching away at the past? Who would have thought he’d stumble onto something in himself, through me! Or that I’d discover something in myself! He was like a pig nosing around the very worst offal, the long decayed remains of his own species. His raised voice made me afraid for his girlfriend and that he had gotten so far inside the head of Sweeney or Dolezal, or whomever he’d come up with, that he didn’t know he’d resurrected inside himself a copy cat. That’s what he didn’t see, but I did when he stood up, the force of personality to commit such horrors himself was there in his voice, in the pertinacity of his exhaustive labors.
Believe me, this is the last thought I want to have. It was a horror that stayed with me since I lived alone in Vermont, sometimes not speaking to a single soul for two or three weeks. You wouldn’t know it from just looking at me. Then I would travel to visit my mother in New York City, Washington Heights, close to Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital and all those medical facilities reaching over the Hudson and the broad expanse of land under the George Washington Bridge not just for picnics, but where anything could happen, not just to get lost in, more underbrush than anyone needed even in a city, and those intoxicatingly tall buildings jutting high up where you couldn’t see inside or out clearly enough, they were so high, labs full of perfect instruments, and here I’d walk right in unmolested with my license plate under my arm, my imagined pass. I must be on official business for one the top surgeons, his runner maybe, or my roommate’s father in college I would tell the security guard. I’m here to see Chief Surgeon Crikelair. See I wanted to be identified and stopped so I could tell my story.
In Massachusetts I’d stop and change the license plate from Vermont to New York plates, so my car wouldn’t be a target of vandals in New York City. Washington Heights was after all the crack capital of the U.S.
The nagging vision that license plate left in the darkest recesses of my brain when I was bent down screwing one off and the other in, more than once someone’s look interrupted me, gave pause as if they wanted to report me to the police. Little did they know! I was often unable to sleep with those rectangular license plates in my mind. I remember one person looking at me at one rest stop so hard that he inspired a spasm of anger that right then and there I wanted to commit some crime that I knew required secret preparation, but I only threw the license plate hastily into the trunk of my Escort and drove away. The gall of him looking at me like that!
Little did anyone imagine the calm calculation that went into who I was, or realize what was not behind removing that license plate but built up from the loose metal in my hand. I couldn’t get out of my mind its convenient sharpness of what didn’t even look dangerous, but still it frightened even me, a weapon in disguise unlike the knife left on the counter in my own home. There was something in my past, dreams of dark fields of meat where Goya’s “Colossus” sits and those tiny covered wagons pass, dreams crowded with vivid chunks of fresh meat, purportedly animal but actual chunks, torsos, of human beings, I had had that dream often throughout my life, and the license plate played right into it. It frightened me, its faux sharpness that in fact could easily, surgically, cut flesh, and not only flesh but a head clean off. That’s what gave me comfort, it was something I could get away with, that nobody would suspect. With a license plate! No way. Until that is you looked carefully at it, or had the experience of a paper cut.
He did what? Not me, but the imagined perp, the Mad butcher of Kingsbury, the Cleveland Torso Murderer. I know I am nobody, but it is just that that accumulates inside anyone and can with little effort identify Jack Jackson. Would he ever find the killer? It would be like finding himself. And I sensed he knew that. If he could get out of the way, he would have the killer cold after all these years. It is in every investigator, every sheriff, policeman, detective, amateur sleuth. They themselves point the way if they only let themselves. It is themselves they are hunting but removed when they admit that they find the killer. It’s true even if you think this license plate story is a lot of hokum, it is not, it just translates the violence to the civilian population behind all that police brutality, behind all the guns drawn, the knives, hacksaws wielded, the license given even to soldiers in foreign lands, the infinite hours of boredom to kill inside the devil’s workshop, the horrors are there and in the civilians they fight for, in the idle minds in their local communities, only it bursts out, periodically, in places like Cleveland and New Castle.
Of course I am somebody with a fertile imagination and a past of soiled yellow underwear rubbed in my nose by the old woman who took care of me when I’d be bathed sitting at the kitchen sink. I am one who has endured the pinches of my mother who visited so infrequently, or all the humiliations by those bigger, stronger, smarter boys in the orphanage, the beatings at night, the sacking in the balls, the constant flagging of my self-esteem, the later humiliation of all those rejections by women, all turned into my bare, white-knuckled grip on the license plate that belied even the screw driver in hand. It was too crude. The license plate with its large-lettered identification, and there I was incognito, only effecting a simple exchange. I scoffed at the identification being associated with me and the blood I could wash off afterwards. The deed would be done already before the conscience would kick in. In fact I was proud of the license plate, living in the Green Mountains of Vermont, and New York, the Empire state of mind. I straddled them both. And besides no one would be alive to register. Fifty years hence I too would not be discovered. All I needed was to get started. The first two I imagined would be the most difficult.
I didn’t imagine myself a bad person, maybe it’d be an internet contact, a transient not along a railroad track, someone I picked up in town or on the highway traveling to New York City or Rutland, Vermont, someone whose head I’d remove with the out of state plate. In some vague way I understood why Jack Jackson came to me and why too I indulged him, something similar in both of us must have already been identified by the idea of nameless transients, an inexhaustible well of violence in all of us that we could get away with, the unidentified swamp life poking through with a mouth full of teeth, for the harm stirring in each of us, even if we are required to cover it up for seven years or suppress it a lifetime sitting passively in an office surrounded by books, when suddenly it breaks through a gesture, an inadvertent moment hovering over you with raised voice, recognized by someone who has already found himself but hasn’t admitted it, who has discovered criminals everywhere, in fact hiding thinly veiled in the past along a railroad line. The wild goose chase ends in identifying one perpetrator to tell our own story to to postpone finding it in ourselves. Putting off the assault as long as we can, the urge to go out with a bang. Yes, we all want attention. You’d think more people would do something. Through all the research to dredge up too in myself thoughts about the suitability of an otherwise harmless license plate from New York or even Vermont that needed changed just so I or my car would not be the target of crime in New York City. We all need protected.