Shannon Michal Dow
He will have passed by her,
right by her without really
noticing her, because she was
one who gives no clues, who
has to be questioned patiently,
one of those difficult to fathom.
It was pretty obvious the boys had been searching for empty houses they could burgle over the holidays. The small Tudor showed evidence around it of several sets of footprints tramped in the ice-crusted snow that had last fallen two nights earlier, as I recall. The footsteps trailed off on either side to the neighboring houses, locked up tight by owners who’d fled for the season. The impressions continued down behind the Tudor to the back of the property and into the gazebo, departing out the other side and continuing to the top of a slight embankment. A rock, sitting unfrozen on the ground (that never relinquished anything this time of year without a good prodding) was found just outside one of the leaded glass windows that bore a chip in one of the panes. To top it off, the kids had backpacks full of belongings decidedly uncharacteristic of teenagers out for a stroll, among them: a jar of pennies, a magnifying glass, several candles, a liter of Vodka (well, that might not be uncharacteristic, but that it was expensive Vodka made it suspect), a wooden, actual-sized artist’s model of a hand with articulating fingers. All acquisitions teenagers would in their youthful glee find amusing. Still, none of the houses, including Julian’s, had been broken into and the boys did call the police to report the body, so they were free and clear.
The boys claimed a snowball fight had pushed them to the edge of the of the ten-foot slope that angled down to a small stream bordered on the opposite bank by a dense thicket. One boy, undoubtedly attracted by the stiff peaks of something resembling crumpled canvas dusted with snow, recognized upon closer inspection it was a body awkwardly splayed at the bottom. It wouldn’t have been all that treacherous of a fall in and of itself, but considering Julian had been unable to crawl back up the glassy grade, it proved to be quite deadly in such frigid temperatures. How he’d wound up at the bottom of this grade was definitely something we all wondered about.
Some people in the department whispered the word “suicide,” more like a question, really, a “Could he have? Do you really think?” Was it some bizarre form of self-execution—suicide by freezing. Some say freezing is a peaceful death, but that’s not true. Oh, in the end you have blissful hallucinations and forget your life and inexplicably feel as if you’re in the tropics, but everything leading up to that point is not pleasant at all. Knowing Julian as I did, which, in all honesty, wasn’t really all that well, I thought him choosing suicide was unlikely. Others, who knew him more or less as well as I did, only momentarily considered he’d gone the to-sleep-perchance-to-dream route before quickly rejecting the thought, as if such a thing as Julian killing himself was wholly out of the realm of real possibility. Despite his apparent affableness, Julian always had an air of imperviousness fortified by a firm jaw and eyes relaying emotions as impenetrable as Fort Knox. Of course, everyone has their weaknesses, their fatal flaws. Even Julian. Still he wasn’t viewed as weak. No, the new set designer was the department’s shining star, its saving grace, lusted after, admired, even envied, by many, quite unlikely to want to end all that.
With suicide discounted, the idea of Julian’s bizarre death being accidental made the rounds. People, of course, wondered what could have caused him to leave his house in such bitter cold without his overcoat or winter boots, no less, and go to the back edge of the property. Did he lock himself out on a drunk? Some speculated there might have been a spare key in the gazebo, although none was ever found. Did he hear something suspicious and go to investigate only to lose his balance and topple down the incline? Anything was conceivable. Weird accidents happen all the time. People have unintentionally asphyxiated themselves by using a gas grill inside their houses, or have drifted off on a carbon monoxide-laden night never to wake again. People lock themselves out or lose their way in bad weather all the time. Some of the unlucky ones end up dying of exposure or tumbling off cliffs.
I could never figure why no one would settle on the notion that Julian’s death was simply a bizarre accident, that from the beginning no one would discount the prospect that a tragic culmination of a series of unlikely and ridiculous events had cascaded one into the other like a life-and-death Mouse Trap culminating in Julian slipping down the ravine. But perhaps “accident” wasn’t sexy enough for people; it would have been an ending too mundane for someone like Julian. No, not sexy enough at all.
So, of course, doubt, thus, was soon followed by the gossiped likelihood Julian Rey was murdered and one of us was a killer.
If it was a murder, though, it was the first the town had seen in years, or perhaps the second, the first one being of a female student discovered at the bottom of a cliff crumpled against the rocks of Menominee before I ever came to Elusius. That one was deemed an “untimely death,” meaning the police weren’t sure if it was a suicide or a murder; it was just a death that happened unexpectedly and to a person too young to just suddenly die on her own. If it had been the latter, the killer was still at large nearly four years later. This wasn’t a criticism of the police. A fall from a great height does such damage the actual reason for the death comes down to questions about depression and enemies and problems at work and jealous ex-lovers and what the police can suss out from the responses. But like an impressionistic painting viewed up close, the incomprehensible fragments of the why make sense only if you take a step back and see them as parts of a whole.
I’d start at the beginning of how a once promising man ended up to be so doomed, that is, if I knew where the beginning was. I used to think what led up to Julian’s murder started late this past fall, ending just before the longest night of the year. But now I know it started well before then and still hasn’t ended. It’s become a circle where one thing leads into another, where there’s no real beginning or end. I’d start when I first suspected, but I realize now even that’s a dark endless circle—a spiral downward, perhaps. So I’ll just tell you things – things that make up the circle – in the chance you’ll be able to put it altogether – to see if you come to the same conclusion I have. Maybe you can tell me whether or not I’ve got a good reason to be fucking terrified.
Please take a walk with me
Let me know--Am I to blame?
Elusius rests in the Upstate New York region along one of the long north to south lakes, which are, because of their long and slender appearance, aptly named Finger Lakes, but which from above look more like water-logged gouges in the earth. Like so many small towns and cities in Upstate New York—Troy, Ithaca, Sparta, Ovid, Lodi—Elusius had been founded and given its name during the Greek Revival era of America, a time when all things mimicking ancient Greece were viewed as, simply by virtue of imitation, magically being instilled with a kind of elegant stature where none would otherwise have existed. That the town was named after the Greek city of Elusius, which had been transformed over time from an idyllic pastoral to an industrial wasteland, was a double irony since during the original Elusius’s transformation, the new Elusius had actually become by the 20th century quite esteemed. During the silent era of filmmaking it became a location and talent source for nearby Ithaca, then the capital of American movie making and then, when movies moved to sunny LA, for its wineries, art galleries with close ties to New York City, and the liberal arts college, Elusius, that was responsible for the town’s population to double during each school year.
Other small towns and cities in Upstate New York—Cayuga, Onondaga, Oswego, Oneida—were named not after idealized places of an ancient world, but after the tribes of indigenous people who had lived in the area for thousands of years up until the time they were forced out by encroaching Europeans. I always found it ironic this area is comprised of Greek-named towns with no resemblance to their counterparts in Greece and Indian-named towns built by the tribes’ ousters who were now the ones called Americans. The acceptance of such duplicity comes so easy to some. But who am I to judge?
Elusius is a beautiful, but harsh place. Cloudless skies are scarce and from fall through early spring are often a murky blue at best. Brutal winter winds tear across the frozen lake and up the hillsides on a regular basis, bitterly smacking the exposed faces of students who trudge up and down those hillsides to and from classes. Snow falls in batches instead of gentle flakes. Like so many other towns dotting the area, it’s within twenty-minutes driving time of any other place. But in winter, twenty minutes seems too long, too risky. And so, like the other towns, it hunkers down, sitting apart like a wounded animal abandoned by its clan, yet fiercely determined to survive all on its own. Summer seems to offer the only reprieve—a brief hiatus of warmth and gentler breezes.
But even on the cruelest winter day, Elusius College has its mystical elements—a view of the city and lake below, a deep gorge on the north side where, despite a temperature hovering near zero, the water of the Menominee rushes over a series of waterfalls and eventually flows into Lake Cayuga, buildings of native gray silt stone, one of which resembles a miniature British Museum, and, on clear nights, a vision of the array of stars so exquisite it hurts.
In my year earning a Master’s in Fine Arts at Elusius (what was I thinking?), my professors encouraged me to risk starving for my art. Even my scenic art class instructor urged me to sign up for an apprentice program for scenic artists in New York City. Of course, none of my teachers were upfront about the actual dismal prospects of my making any kind of decent living from painting. From their comfortable positions at the college, they never had to make that extraordinary leap of faith of surviving off their own art. My art professors’ conviction any of their students could in reality become successful artists just because they wanted to was something I felt my professors had to believe themselves, because, after all, what purpose did they serve if such a belief were false?
They said my work was very good. But I knew it wasn't enough to be very good. Hell, it wasn’t enough to be the best. I had to have the courage to offer myself, like a woman opening herself for birth. I had to have the courage to let that intrinsic part of me be touched by strangers, its worth evaluated by them, as if their interpretation of the offering was the only thing that held weight, as if the giving itself meant nothing. I had to have some sort of faith in myself, despite the strangers, which, to be honest, I didn’t. And I wasn’t ready to risk another failure. Even if the last one had nothing to do with artistic endeavors, it had still involved an affair of the heart, or, should I say, the death of the heart?
After my last art class, I carefully cleaned my brushes with turpentine as if I might use them again, as if there were some point to using them. I rinsed the last traces of turpentine from them with cold water gushing into the paint-encrusted metal sink, the muddied build-up formed from the layers of old paint left behind by all those who'd come before me, dried the brushes and closed them in my wooden painting case.
I’d broken it off with Raymond a week earlier and made plans to depart town as quietly and quickly as possible, to get reasonably far enough away from everything that had been my college life. The first time I ever saw Raymond was in the stacks of the campus library. I spied him from my carrel as he made his way down the aisle, his fingertips grazing the volumes on the shelf until he stopped a shoulder’s width away from me. Then he smiled at me, almost apologetically, as if his presence might be construed as an intrusion. I later learned he had a Chinese mother and a Caucasian father (American), which explained his high cheek bones and broad, flat face, and eyes too round to be Chinese but not round enough to be European. His hair stood black and short like the bristles of a fine sable paintbrush, and I had to stop myself from touching it as he knelt beside me, pulling out a single volume from the shelf.
Later, when we lay coiled like snakes, my fingers rising though the soft thickness of his hair, he told me he’d been with two other women, one time with each, both encounters lasting exactly one minute. He was stroking me as he told me this quite seriously, almost with shame. The first woman seduced him on the floor of a friend’s apartment. The second, whom he loved, said, “Come on, little boy” when his hands crept up under her blouse to her breasts, and treated him with indifference afterward. Both were older than he was.
When he was finished, I teased gently, “What is that saying about three times?” But his stroking increased, and neither of us could say.
He taught me how to make Chinese meals. For a year my apartment became inundated with the smells of ginger and garlic and a hint of cinnamon that at first had been so pleasant, but became cloying. It was as if over time the paint and plaster absorbed the odors and let them waft out at the most unsuitable moments, like when I was taking a bath sprinkled with rose oil, or when I was drinking coffee in the morning. Eventually it’s permanence perturbed me.
Raymond was confused at first by my impatience when, confronted with the combination of garlic and cinnamon and sesame oil, I’d throw on my coat, preparing for escape. With hurt in his eyes, he’d beg me to tell him what was wrong, but I couldn’t say, didn’t know myself, and so I’d leave him behind and trudge up the hill to study alone in the undergraduate library. He’d first been in denial things were crumbling apart no matter how hard he tried to keep them together and then melancholy and imploring and then, when he realized the inevitable, angry. Sometimes he’d follow me, searching me out in the stacks to return to the thread of an argument I never could figure out. Other times I’d find him hovering outside, staring at me with wordless torment. Eventually, the long silences spread out like an ocean between us, and not much time later, I moved to New Jersey and those smells that had disturbed me so were left behind with him. Or so I thought at the time. Now I’m fully aware that such things are never left completely left behind. Such things return to prey upon you.