Read Grist Mill Road Online

Authors: Christopher J. Yates

Grist Mill Road (10 page)



I met Rachel at a party, alongside the buffet, the two of us bumping hands as we both tried to snatch up the last
. (I don't always see rapidly moving objects coming from my left. Close one of your eyes for several minutes and you might be surprised at the constant and obtrusive presence of your nose.) After the clash, the two of us shared a joke about how many of the devilish little cheese bombs we'd devoured already, while a furtive, hirsute gentleman brushed past us and popped the final prize whole in his mouth.

Probably for the best, my buffet neighbor whispered to me. Although the thing is, she added, I've been trying really hard to convince myself they're 70 percent air and that makes them diet food.

Cheesy puffs, I said. I tell myself the same lie about cheesy puffs, I confessed, and we both watched as Mr. Hirsute pushed several miniature cupcakes in his mouth, before piling his plate high with undipped crudit
s and heading back to his wife.

I'm Rachel, said the woman, offering me her hand, and then we started to chat—how we knew the hostess, who else at the party we were friends with, the location of our partners, Rachel's being the most attractive woman in the room, before landing eventually on the topic of what we both did for a living.

Rachel went first, telling me she worked as a literary agent, that she had both fiction and nonfiction clients writing in several different genres, but her main area of interest and great passion was true crime. Seeing my reaction, Rachel added quickly, Oh, please don't judge me. I mean, sure, I take an unhealthy interest in the most gruesome details of the lives of serial killers and the murders they commit, but …

Wait, I said, that's amazing.

It is? said Rachel. Oh, good, I was hoping you were one of the dark ones.

I'm a crime reporter, I said. For the
New York Mail

Get out of town, said Rachel.

We chatted away for an hour or more, quickly realizing that one of my former colleagues was a client of Rachel's—Mike Tucker, who wrote a
New York Times
bestseller about the Gotham Ripper, in which I stake out a spot in the acknowledgments—and then discovering that we both loved the same authors, the TV series
The Wire,
had both read Truman Capote's
In Cold Blood
as teenagers (under the bedcovers with a flashlight, in my case), and both came from small towns that no one has ever heard of. Eventually Rachel uttered the fateful words, So, have you ever thought about writing a book, Hannah?

We went over several of the stories I'd covered and Rachel said she'd love me to get something to her, just a couple of sample chapters and an outline would do for the time being, it shouldn't take ever so long.

That was four years ago.

I'm sorry about all those missed deadlines, Rachel. Also, I'm sorry if this tale didn't end up being quite the thing you had in mind.

For the next several weeks after meeting Rachel, I went back over my notes and stories concerning several of the murders I'd worked on in depth for the
New York Mail
. There were at least two or three I thought might warrant a lengthier telling, but every time I tried to get down the first page, my spirit crumpled before I hit the second paragraph.

For some time I tried to ignore the issue, but it soon became clear what the problem was. Evidently there was only one story that could be my first, the only true crime with which I was intimately familiar, an incident that took place up in the Swangum Mountains in the year 1982.

Once I accepted this, I knew I had to write it all down—the story of a girl and a boy and a BB gun—and then, upon finishing, I would lock all of the pages in a drawer, never letting anyone see what I'd written. After that I hoped I might be able to move on to something less personal.

At some point toward the end of 2007 (around the same time my husband, Patch, lost his job), I began. Which means that when I started writing this, I had no idea of the great secret our marriage was harboring. (For a short while I would have said that our marriage was based on a lie, but my opinion has softened a hell of a lot since then.) And of course I knew nothing of what was coming in 2008, had no idea how everything would end later that year. This also means that, when I started working on Grist Mill Road, the story existed within the bounds of only a single year. All I wanted to do was explain, as best I could, everything that led up to Matthew Weaver shooting my eye out in August 1982.

My favorite book, one that I've read more than a dozen times, is the greatest true crime book ever written, the same one I'd discussed with Rachel at the party—
In Cold Blood
by Truman Capote. Capote's
In Cold Blood
tells the story of the murder of four members of the Clutter family in 1959, each one of them bound and gagged and shot in the head, the quadruple homicide taking place in their home, a farmhouse on the high wheat plains of Kansas.

When most people write about crime, they write thrillers. But Truman Capote didn't write a thriller—Capote wrote his story as a tragedy. (He gives the reader a little wink at the end of his very first paragraph, comparing the image of distant grain elevators in Kansas to the appearance of temples in ancient Greece.) One of the most pathos-invoking elements of Capote's tragedy is that he makes the crime seem both brutally unique and yet, at the same time, disturbingly everyday. The opening of the book
feels eerily familiar, scenes from small-town America, quaint details that might describe ten thousand different places across the land. Reading about the ordinary day-to-day lives of the residents of Holcomb, Kansas, feels a little like flicking through hundreds of postcards, small illustrations depicting the wholesomeness of daily American life at the geographical and spiritual heart of the nation. There's the farmer, Herb Clutter, clanging his milk pails. Oh look, do you see the postmistress in denim and cowboy boots? Now here comes the farmer's daughter, Nancy, arriving home late from her date with the school basketball star, Bobby. (Herb will have a few things to say to young Nancy.) And yet, while you're reading this, you understand that at some point as you flick through these pretty snapshots, you're going to get to the blood and that, when you do, this will be the worst thing you've ever had to read in your life.

It all makes tragedy feel both horribly average and terribly inevitable—and I think that's something I certainly believe myself.

When I started writing my own story, I suppose somewhere back in my mind I must have been thinking about
In Cold Blood
. I too was writing a small-town tragedy, a story that began very small, its ingredients the familiar details of American life. In my case those everyday ingredients were school hallways and lockers, sleepovers, boy crushes, and mean girls. All I was trying to do in my opening chapters was tell the story of a twelve-year-old girl, a few months shy of thirteen, who was just as selfish as children that age tend to be and just as myopic (I shudder to use that word now), but also just as innocent and naive and keen to learn about life, a bright-eyed girl wondering what the world would look like in adulthood, how she would turn out, what she would do and who she might love and settle down with one day.

So that's where I began, writing the opening lines a few weeks before Christmas 2007, obviously unable to see the story for what it was truly, the seed of a tragedy far greater than mine alone, the beginning of everything that's happened since the day when I first sat down and typed out the words,
I grew up ninety miles north and
half a decade away from New York City
. Because just as with my favorite book,
In Cold Blood,
this story you're reading once started out as a perfectly ordinary, everyday tale. Until, very suddenly, it wasn't.

This is how it went.

*   *   *

north and half a decade away from New York City in a big parchment-colored home standing right at the bend on Grist Mill Road, just before the junction with Earhart Place. Three miles east of our family abode, Grist Mill Road reaches its romantic end at a parking lot, having swept back and forth up into the Swangum Mountains, a legendary area for rock climbers, so I've heard, but famous also for their ice caves, a day-trip I'd recommend highly to anyone who finds regular caves just a little too cozy and dry.

From the front windows of our house we could gaze up at the Swangum Ridge, a rock face presenting itself majestically across the horizon like a vast lower jaw, a set of uneven teeth in a yellowish shade I believe to be known as
British White

While I was growing up on Grist Mill Road, my father's favorite joke while greeting any new visitor out front was to point up at the ridge and then the street sign beyond the bend, before announcing to his guest, with a jovial clap on the shoulder, We live between a rock and Earhart Place. OK, so you had to fudge the pronunciation of Earhart and, strictly speaking, the Swangum Ridge isn't a single rock, of course, it's actually an intricate layer cake of various mineral strata, but still, my dad knocked it out of the park every time.

My mother, meanwhile, liked to say we were blessed to be living in the shadow of God's beauty.

I have a feeling I got my sense of humor from my dad.

Roseborn is not a large town and certainly not in any way famous. However, you might be familiar with its name if, like me, you happen to be an aficionado of cement. (Perhaps you heard mention of it at a cheese and cement party, or in one of the better
cement boutiques of Fifth Avenue.) Otherwise, you may have heard of Roseborn if … let me think …

No, Roseborn is pretty much famous only for its excellent once-famous cement.

You might eventually conclude that any lack of romantic feelings I hold toward the town in which I was born and raised has something to do with a little incident that took place nearby in the Swangum Mountains one Wednesday in August 1982, when a fourteen-year-old boy, Matthew Weaver, tied me to a tree and shot me thirty-seven times with a Red Ryder BB gun, the final shot piercing my eye—and there may be some truth to this, my hometown certainly looked different to me after I lost my left eye. And yes, I do like to say that I
it, even if this doesn't adequately convey the horror of having one's eye irreparably damaged by a steel pellet and surgically removed by Dr. David P. Schwab. (For all you word lovers out there, the technical name of this hospital procedure is
so I guess you could say my eye got nuked.)

Incidentally, I have visions, half-visions in my case, of Dr. Schwab talking about the enucleation procedure to his shocked plaid-sporting buddies, maybe as they awaited their tee shots on the tenth, and using the golf ball in his hand and the tip of his red plastic tee to illustrate the tale.

This was big news in Roseborn.

Anyway, certainly in one sense of the word I did
my eye, because two days after its removal, I asked where it was and no one could tell me.

What follows is one of the conversations I had on Friday, Thursday having been consumed by tears and whys and police, more tears and finally a platter of jelly beans that preceded a wildly psychedelic sixteen-hour sleep. (Although thinking about this twenty-five years on, perhaps those weren't actually jelly beans.)

is it? I asked my bedside parents.

My mom decided to take the lead on this topic. It's nowhere, honey, she said.

It's not nowhere, I said. It has to be somewhere. It didn't vanish into thin air. (In fact it probably did vanish into thin air. Most likely it would have been burned with a whole pile of other medical waste.)

Oh, Hannah. I don't know, the things you come out with.

Can I keep it? I want to keep it.

What? Are you serious?

eye, Mom.

Next there followed a short silence as my mom covered her face and pretended to cry, one of the many child-rearing methods at which she excelled.

I can ask the doctor, Hanny Bee, said my dad.

My mom threw her shocked hands from her streakless face.

We are not asking the doctor, she gasped. What sort of people would ask a doctor a thing like that?

So that was that, we didn't ask. Which to my mind means that somewhere along the line, my eye was in fact lost.

*   *   *

do Hannah's eyes look double-psycho today?

This is Christie Laing and you may have detected in her words just the faintest whiff of animosity toward me. It's January 1982, our first day back after Christmas break, and I have seven more months of blissfully biocular life ahead of me.

Yet things could have been so different between us. I was a pretty brunette girl, Christie was a pretty blond girl, if only I'd been prepared to play along, taunting the less attractive girls and mocking the quieter boys, we could have formed a great-hair superpower in Roseborn Middle School, strutting the hallways together like ABBA, me brunette Anni-Frid, Christie as platinum Agnetha.

I wish I could say it was a sense of decency that prevented me from joining forces with Christie, but really I think it was a kind of uncomprehending indifference. What would have been the point? As early as the age of eleven, I knew I wanted to stride out into the wide world to explore everything that existed beyond
Roseborn. (For years I was obsessed with Japan because I considered it the strangest place I could visit that didn't require space travel. Then again, I had not, until my early twenties, experienced New Jersey.) But knowing this didn't make me immune to Christie's torture campaign and so, as a child and then teenager, I fretted constantly about my too bright eyes, my too full lips, my impossibly thin legs, my excessively skinny ass … Oh yes, there was no doubt about it, I was

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