“All of the victims were shot in their heads
and all but McGowan were shot in their beds,”
“The beds were undisturbed.
The house itself was undisturbed,”
“There were no signs
of a break-in,”
— No Motive Found in California Murders
Above, the unintentional “found poetry” of a local murder in Garner Valley, California. Exceptional enough to be brought to the ever shortening attention span of the nation because the toll was unusually high: David, Father, age 42 — believed dead by his own hand; Chase, son, age 14; Paige, daughter, age 10; Raine, daughter, age 8; Karen, wife and mother, age 42; Karen’s mother, no name or age given in the report.
We learn that a “911 dispatcher didn’t hear any voices on the line, but was able to identify the sounds of the telephone hitting the wall and a gunshot.” We learn that the father’s body was found next to a handgun and a phone. We learn that “this community is in no danger. We are not at this time looking for a suspect.” We learn that the town is really quiet and that, “A lot could happen right next door and you wouldn’t even know it.”
We don’t learn if the standard spontaneous shrine of flowers, balloons, stuffed animals and children’s art and crayoned notes has been erected at the edge of the police tape in front of the home, but we know it will be, and it will remain until the rains wash away.
We won’t learn, unless we live in that small town, the “why” of it all.
We probably could know, in time, the why of it all if we became interested in this common killing, exceptional only for its body count. We could learn if we followed the ever-shrinking national news reports down to the local level. We could, we think, learn why if we followed the reports on through the inquest and into the six graves that wait after all the bodies are autopsied by the men who spend their lives
“Working on mysteries
Without any clues..”
We could know why, but we won’t bother to find out. No need really. We already think two things that keep us from needing to know. First, we think that we do know what happened in the house. Second, we know — because it happened in that house — it will never happen in our house.
We know it will never happen in our house because, as humans, we have an almost limitless ability to forget any hint of ‘could’ when it comes to horror. In those few moments when our forgetfulness fails us, we remain secure in our belief that we would never do such things to those we love. We know to an absolute certainty that anyone who could must not have been “in his right mind.”
That’s a common but still strange phrase — “not in his right mind.” Everyone uses it as shorthand for things people do that are, large or small, somehow far outside what we normally expect them to do. Nobody that I know of takes it to the other side of that common phrase and looks at what a person does when he’s “in his wrong mind.”
Our right mind doesn’t like to think it’s got a wrong mind. It doesn’t like to think it because it does indeed have one, and it is hardwired. Each of our right minds has a wrong mind and we are, with good reason, very, very frightened of it. So frightened that we don’t think of it because to even think of our wrong mind gives it power, and it has far too much of that already. It has so much power that, once the wrong mind starts to control us, it takes, as they say, “a power greater than ourselves to restore us to sanity.”
I grow increasingly uncertain about many things in this life, but of that one thing I once became, and today remain, certain of without a scintilla of smidgen of a doubt. Like most men, I tend to forget about that greater power when mucking about in the detritus of daily life. That really doesn’t matter. Sooner or later I am always given a miraculous moment on the small scale of ordinary life that lets me know in no uncertain terms that, for human beings, only “a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.”
I know that this invisible power exists because I have seen it.
You might think that this encounter with a “greater power” is a “drinking thing,” but for me it was a “feeling thing.” Except for a few years when I was young and it was the style, plus a brief passage later, I’ve never been much of a drinking man. My default state, when it comes to drinking is that I find I can drink as much as I want, but that I don’t want to drink all that much.
My problem and one of my many flaws is this “feeling thing.” I can very easily feel too much and have a problem stopping the feeling of feeling too much.
It’s not easy being an empath. You learn early to just shut down emotions; to keep them caged with silence. You learn later, much later, that keeping feelings caged with silence is like putting your wrong mind on steroids. It only makes it stronger. Much stronger. At some point you lose the power to keep your right mind in control of your wrong mind. And that’s when very bad things can start to happen.
One day in June many years ago in a universe far, far away, in a small town on the other side of this continent, bad things started to happen in me.
It was at the end of the usual long banal litany of love gone off the tracks — secrets, lies, scorn, and selfishness. There were years of too little money followed by far too much money coming too quickly, until people could finally afford the favorite American fantasy of dumping the old and tried to get to the new and better for the sake of “personal growth.”
Her need for personal growth and “more space” had been building for over a year, as had my own silent rage of feelings. She’d gone into the city for a late meeting and “dinner with a client.” It would “probably run late” so she’d just be “sensible” and “take a hotel room and come back in the morning.” How perfectly sensible that was. What could I do but agree?
“A lot could happen right next door and you wouldn’t even know it.”
She got dressed for the city and packed an overnight case and got in her new Saab and drove off down the hill towards the city. I watched her car disappear around the bend in the road by the school. I waited by the window for five minutes and then went and searched her bathroom. I didn’t find what I was looking for. She’d packed her diaphragm. Standard equipment for “dinner with a client” in those days.
I checked my six in my soul and found, naturally, no real emotions roaming about. They were safely caged and there was no key. So, without really thinking about it all that much, I did what any normal American would do under such circumstances. I got into my wrong mind and went shopping.
I backed my gold ’72 Cadillac out of my garage and drove down the hill to Highway One and turned right in the direction of the city she’d gone to. I drove less than half a mile to the store that stood alone in the trees and turned left into the parking lot and went inside.
An hour or so later I drove back to my house and pulled into the garage feeling, as the song says, “comfortably numb.” I set the brake and went to move my right hand off the steering wheel to turn off the ignition key.
But I could not move my hand off the steering wheel and onto the key.
You never really think about how you move your hand until you can’t move it. The hand is the mind and soul’s interface with the world. It’s working that way right now as I press the keys that make these words and this period.
When you find, suddenly, that your hand won’t obey your brain, that you’ve lost the power to make it do your bidding, it brings everything else in you to a full stop. It did with me that afternoon in my garage.
Even though the house was in a very quiet area on a side road above the town, everything seemed to get much quieter still in those moments when I couldn’t move my hand. So quiet in fact that the white noise that had whined in my mind all afternoon faded out until I heard a voice whisper in my ear, quite calmly and distinctly, “You shall return that stuff in the trunk right now.”
The stuff in the trunk was a brand-new shotgun and a carton of shells “for home defense.”
Whatever it was that was telling me to return “that stuff” wasn’t making a suggestion. It was giving me an order that, because God was not yet done with me, I could not refuse. I knew it, my right mind knew it, and my wrong mind knew it and was taken, in that instant, by that power, and put back in its place deep beneath the light.
And then I could move my hand, not to turn off the ignition — that was still not allowed — but to put the car into reverse, back out of the garage, drive back to the Gun Shop, and return “that stuff in the trunk.”
When I walked in with the stuff and laid it on the counter to get my money back I said, “I decided I don’t really need this after all.”
The man who sold the stuff to me gave me a straight look and said, “I guess you don’t.”
He was right. What I did need, I decided, was a drink. And since that need’s solution is always ready to hand in America, I drove across Highway One and directly to the local dive bar back from the road next to the on-ramp to I-95.
I’d seen far too much of this scuzzy joint in the last few months and I was destined to see a lot more of it in the months to come. It was one of those ‘great bad places’ in American life; one of those spaces where they’re selling, morning, noon and far into the night, eight kinds of despair on tap and a wide selection of numb on the shelves behind the bar; mixed, on-the-rocks, or “neat.”
“The Tip-Top” had been through a lot of owners, each of whom was determined to get more money out of it by putting less into it. It wasn’t quite to the stage where you could get a shot and a beer while standing in rubble up to your knees, but it was getting there. It had the requisite thick smoke from stubbed out, lipstick stained L&Ms for standard atmosphere, but it had something extra as well. It always seemed to me that, in some strange way, the management had managed to inject into the haze of blue-gray smoke a fine particulate of black specks. It seemed to give it … character.
It was one of those bars whose main attraction was that, no matter how down you were and no matter how ugly you were and no matter how crazy you were, there was always someone there late at night that was more depressed, ugly and crazy than you could ever be. That made you feel good in a very bad sort of way. To amp up this quality feeling, the jukebox — on those evenings it worked — was dedicated to country and western songs. Did I mention that it was called the “Tip-Top?” It was and it was just the bar for me; my own very down market version of the cocktail lounge in “The Shining.” The only real difference was that at the Tip-Top I always had to pay.
Like I said, I’ve never been a drinking man, but in those days I did drink more than I have before or since. Sometimes much more. The extra advantage of going to the Tip-Top was that I could drive back to my house about a mile away along back roads where, late at night, the police only came when they were called. A perfect situation. What a brilliant bar it was.
After leaving the Gun Shop and walking into the Tip-Top with cash in hand, my first move was a shot of Irish whiskey with a beer back so I could toast whatever power it had been that had forced me to take the stuff in the trunk back to the dealer. I had no idea what the power was, but I knew I felt stronger for it. I was again in perfect control of my feelings. I was so much in control of my feelings that I felt the need to celebrate that achievement with an aperitif, which in this case was another shot of Irish whiskey. Tillamore Dew — top shelf stuff, no well bottles for me.
By the time that was down I was feeling hungry, so I took a look at the fly specked bar menu at the Tip-Top and ordered their daily special, a pint of Guiness at half-price. Very nutritious.
Not quite full, I decided on dessert which, being a double Kahlua on the rocks, was far too sweet for my tastes and needed a night-cap of Cognac, served neat in a snifter, the better to get a quality case of the vapors.
Having taken all necessary measures to feel no feelings at all, I left and got in my car and drove carefully on the back roads with all the windows open — for the refreshing breeze — until I pulled into my garage. This time I had no trouble at all with my hand and shut off the ignition.
I got out of the car, leaving the driver’s door open, and walked back and pulled the garage door down. The garage was under the house and, because the house was built to keep everyone warm through the New England winters, the garage door had flanges that sealed it tightly against the cold winds and snow. I’d installed a new bottom seal the autumn before so I knew it was in good shape, even Tip-Top.
I turned from the door and walked back along the car intending to go up the stairs and into the house and to bed. Instead, I found myself getting back into the driver’s seat. I sat there for a moment and stared at the back wall of the garage with its collection of rakes, shovels, and other tools. There was a dingy storage compartment off to the right and I remember thinking that I really had to give it a new coat of paint.
Then it came to me that it would be a really good idea, a perfect idea, a shiningly stunning idea, if I would simply reach out my hand and turn the engine on. A glance at the gauge on the way home had informed me I had over half a tank. That would certainly be enough to get me where I had to go. It was a warm summer night and I could even leave the windows down. Better still, I didn’t need to worry about being a little drunk and getting pulled over and having to breathe in a tube since I wouldn’t be driving on any roads at all. I looked at this plan from a lot of angles and I could find no flaw in it.
Okay, I thought, lets get on with it. So I told my hand to reach out and turn the key. Gentlemen, start your engine.
And for the second time that day, I couldn’t move my hand.
I mean, I really
- could not move my hand.
I told it to move with my mind in no uncertain terms over and over to no effect. It just stayed in my lap in that limp and unresponsive state your limbs get to if you sleep on them and cut off the circulation. When I thought about reaching across with my left hand to do the duty of my right hand, that entire arm stopped working. That made me angry enough to talk to my hand out loud, “Just get with it. Quit screwing around and turn the damn key!”
Which is when I wept, very loudly and for a very long time, but not for the last time. It was okay to weep though because, as I thought at the time, I was the only one there.
When that was over, I got out of the car and up the stairs to the kitchen and then up to bed where I indulged myself in the luxury of passing out with my clothes on.
I woke up in a patch of sunlight the next morning, stripped, took a shower, six aspirin, a lot of orange juice, and three cups of coffee sitting outside at the picnic table I’d built next to the rope swing I’d hung from the oak, close by the small platform tree house I’d put up in the willow. All that was over now, and there’d be years of bad days ahead, but they’d all — no matter how bad — be better than the day I’d just passed through.
Somehow I’d gotten into my “wrong mind.” Somehow, I thought then, I’d gotten back into my “right mind.” The thing with the hand not working bothered me quite a bit, but I didn’t have any ready explanation for it and, being a man who just loves rational explanations, I put it aside until I could ‘study the phenomenon’ from some book that certainly had the answer.
I didn’t know then that the only sensible and rational answer was that “a power greater than ourselves had restored us to sanity.” I think I know that now, even if I forget from time to time.
But I remember it anew when, like this morning, I read the common, garden variety headline, No Motive Found in California Murders. That could have been my headline many years ago. We all know the motive behind “No Motive Found.”
Over the years, I’ve told a couple of therapists and a few friends about sitting in my car in my garage with the door closed on that June night. I’ve never told anyone about the stuff that was in the trunk earlier that day. Until the end of my days, I’ll always be grateful and humbled by the power that stayed my hand and made me return that stuff.
A man named Poretto told me recently that Grace is something that is always waiting and knocking quietly at the door of your life. In California, yesterday, somebody forgot to answer the door. In Connecticut years ago, I couldn’t answer so something just kicked mine down, walked right in, and took over.
“A lot could happen right next door and you wouldn’t even know it.”
First published 2005