Last Tuesday morning my daughter Delaney and I drove two hours north from Clearwater to Gainesville on I-75. We were taking my Mick dog to the vet in what is a deliciously dull aftermath to a yearlong personal drama involving Mick’s mystery illness. In fact, other than the sick-dog thing, my life had been calm, complacent. I’d achieved that wry self-awareness and easy-chair stability that middle age can bring, and I knew enough to savor it while it lasted. My biggest upset was, as I told Delaney, I was going to have to read from and discuss my essay “Turnpike Psycho” the following week during an event at Valencia College. So I’d tried once again to corroborate the main fact of the nonfiction piece, the alleged murder of my college friend Kim by her husband. In almost thirty years, from microfiche to Google, I never found anything. I said, “I looked pretty hard while I was writing the essay, too, you know, trying to be a responsible writer and all.”
“Well,” she said, making a grand gesture toward herself, “Never before have you had an Information Technologies Specialist for a daughter.”
I thanked my soon-to-matriculate daughter and watched the palmetto, scrub pines, and buzzards whisking past my sunglasses. When we got back to Tampa, she’d go off to her apartment computer, I’d go home to mine, I’d forget to ask her, she’d forget to search, and it was just as well. After writing a novel based on Kim and then “Turnpike Psycho,” Kim was out of my system. I was so over her.
Delaney said, “What was her husband’s name?”
“Roland.” It perpetually surprises me that you can Google on your phone while hurtling at 75 miles-per-hour on I-75. “But here’s half the problem: I don’t remember his last name. For some idiotic reason it never occurred to me she’d have taken his last name. I kept searching for Kim Bell.”
“1987. All pre-Internet,” I said. “And it might never even have happened. I bet she’s raising two kids in Poughkeepsie.” None of this was ever about Kim anyway. It didn’t matter if the story was true. It was about the burden a story could be, how you can build a quiet life on the hillside of everything you think you know, and then a detail enters and something shifts, then comes a tumbling roar, and your own psychic mudslide buries you.
“Was it Roland Smith? Roland Waters? Roland Steele? Roland Welch?” Delaney bent over her cell phone and scrolled. “Roland Robertson? Anything sound familiar?”
“What the hell?”
“It’s a list of all the murderers named Roland,” she said. “Murderpedia.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“Huh. In addition to being a murderer, Roland Murphy was also a legendary surfer.”
“Kim and her mother were killed in West Chester, PA. Roland killed himself up in New England somewhere, but I get all those tiny states mixed up.” I drove on, north on the Interstate, Delaney typing and sliding her finger over the glass of her phone, me squinting behind my sunglasses and wondering why my life plays out on highways. All I’d ever really wanted was to stay put. “I suppose it would help,” I said, “if I knew his last name.”
“Maybe your friends who first told you about it remember his name.”
They had kept the story from me for a year. Why? Because they sensed what it would do to me? What it would do to them to repeat it? “I don’t even remember their names. They owned a bicycle shop, but I can’t remember its name anymore.”
“Was it Eddies? Freeze Thaw Cycles?” She read out addresses, pulled up maps.
I told her exactly where my friends’ shop was. We bickered, but the map in her phone refused to match the map in my memory. Finally I conceded my friends’ shop was gone. “We could just cold-call one of the shops and ask.”
“I could never do that.”
“Of course you could,” I said. “I never heard of Freeze Thaw Cycles. Great pun. What time is it? Dial it and give me the phone.” A moment later I was telling a young man, “This is an odd call in your week, but I’m looking for some friends of mine who used to own a bicycle shop near yours about twenty-seven years ago.”
“I’ve only been here a couple years,” the young man said. “New Age was up the street, but those guys moved away awhile ago.”
“New Age! Yes!” I said, my eyes on the road but my mind’s eye on my old friends’ faces, the interior of the shop, the scent of oiled gears and new rubber tires near the countertop where we flirted, the low couches where we’d laugh and smoke after the shop closed for the night. “I’m not really looking for them. A friend of mine was murdered twenty-eight years ago by somebody who used to own a different bicycle shop in town, and I’m trying to find out what really happened. I thought the New Age guys would remember them.”
He said, “That’s way before my time.” He racked his memory, listed owners, store names, locations. “Randy sold The Bicycle Shop, and then—”
I remembered, somehow, that Roland had a brother named Randy. I didn’t know how I would’ve known that, but I did. I held my breath. “What was Randy’s last name?”
I turned to Delaney, said, “Roland Moore,” and told the nice young bicycle guy how I missed mountain biking now that I lived in Florida. “It’s no good around here.”
He said, “Sure, it is! Every year I take a group to Ocala for a week in the winter.”
“Oh, my god. I’m driving through Ocala right now.”
“No way!” he said.
“Way,” I said. “I’ll be damned. It is hilly!”
“It’s fantastic. We go every February.”
“I should totally meet you guys there.” Then I remembered I was 52 with a bum hip. “But I’m grounded. I’m in physical therapy.”
“Well,” he said, “then when you get better!”
Delaney spoke: “Chesco Woman, Daughter Found Shot to Death. April 13, 1987. State police are investigating the shooting deaths of a 71-year-old Chester County woman and her 28-year-old daughter. . . .”
“Oh, no!” I cried to the nice bicycle guy. “My daughter found the article! ‘State police are investigating the shooting deaths of a 71-year-old Chester County woman and her 28-year-old daughter,’” I repeated, helpfully, as if he’d been burning for this information for almost thirty years. “. . . which they said might be linked to the apparent suicide of the daughter’s husband in Boston last week.”
It was all true; it was all true all along! I burst into tears. The phone call with the nice bicycle guy suddenly got awkward.
“Miriam H. Bell of Chesterville-Lewisville Road, Franklin Township, and her daughter, Kimberly Ann Moore of Park Drive, Boston,” Delaney read on, “were discovered dead of gunshot wounds at Bell’s home about 10:30 p.m. Saturday by a relative, state police said yesterday.”
“I should go,” said the bicycle guy.
Somehow I extricated myself from the phone, distracted from my own experience by an awareness that the bicycle man would repeat the story of this phone call later in the day, maybe more than once, maybe to people at Randy’s old shop, and he’d hear more, and Moore, and maybe find the article for himself, and maybe enter an MFA program and write about it, as I did, and his life would be spent mouldering in such underground pursuits. Somehow I kept the car on the road as my daughter read to me that autopsies were to be performed and bullets removed from bodies and compared. Kim’s brother Eugene had tried all week to contact his sister and mother to tell them about Roland’s death. Failing that, he went to the house, broke in, and found his sister and mother, who, as the investigator put it, “appeared to have been dead for a considerable time.”
It was so much worse than what I’d carried for twenty-seven years. How would I carry the story now? Did I have another twenty-seven years? The rest of the way to Gainesville, in a sweet, shivery fever, Delaney and I puzzled over details, wondering why Roland had refilled all six chambers of the gun with bullets before planting one in his head, how the apartment might have been locked from the inside by someone exiting, and why I’d always thought Roland’s body was found after theirs, and how knowing Eugene tried for days to tell his mother and sister of Roland’s suicide made the whole story so, so much worse. We made a list of questions, only partly aware of our own wish to keep the fever stoked a long time. She searched for autopsy reports and found death records for Miriam and Kimberly—both dated “zero April.”
The phrase actually raised the hair on my arms.
We compared what I remembered about Kim to what we’d learned. Delaney said, “It’s suspicious there’s no death date on the records. What’s this ‘zero April’ crap? Coroners could figure out a date of death back then. And why is there only one newspaper article? You said Kim was fearing for her life from Roland’s family but not him specifically.”
She thought Mafia could be involved. Mafia could shut down an investigation. “The KKK’s big in Pennsylvania too. Maybe Kim knew something. Or someone was trying to punish Roland, and he killed himself when they told him what they’d done.” She found where Eugene Bell, Randy Moore, and officer Kevin Dykes now lived and worked. “Mom,” she said. “You have to go talk to them. You have to write about this.”
“I know,” I said, already seeing myself travel to talk to Eugene. Could I do that to him? Would he welcome me? Was it time? My imagination projected myself to his home, where I set my recorder between us, then he and I were crying and hugging. I was enduring long hours with my bum in a dining room chair, transcribing the interview recordings at the table. Then I was reconnecting with and interviewing our old mutual friends, Ann and Pat, the guys at the bicycle shop, the friends of Roland’s that so disturbed Kim. Then I had the courage to brave Roland’s brother Randy. I was communicating frequently with Officer Dykes. I was reading, writing, weeping. Finally, my future self slid from a plaid manila envelope a stack of autopsy photos, black and white and endless as the road before me. I felt the slam of recognition when my eyes struck that familiar face, after thirty years, reduced to monochrome. And just as I did now, I would know again what I already knew.
“It could have been her past lack of virtue,” Delaney was saying.
“Lack of virtue?”
“She could have been killed for darkening Roland’s upper-crust reputation with the marriage, or for harming that of the family.”
“That was my impression at the time,” I said, bristling as blame fell, as it so often did, on the victim. How to tell my daughter I’d seen myself in Kim, I’d seen my own boyfriend, Gavin, in Roland, I’d seen Gavin’s disapproving parents in Mr. and Mrs. Moore. And here I was. “But I suspected Roland killed her for some perceived involvement with another man. But then again, way before she died, I also sensed he was up to something sordid that troubled her.”
“So many possibilities!”
“Who are we to solve a murder twenty-eight years cold?”
“Murders get solved by friends and family all the time,” she said.
Flying along I-75 , I took my eyes off the road and looked at my daughter a moment too long. Smiling into her phone, she was twenty-five, about the age Kim was when I met her, the age I was when I began writing about Kim.
“I mean, there could be nothing more sinister than the surface,” Delaney said.
“Don’t be too sure about that,” I said. But I’d dive below anyway. A few days later, I asked my friend Heather Jones, why people like us go striding straight into the macabre?
Without missing a beat, Heather said, “Because we’re people who have to live and die.”
Riding the wake of Kim’s first murder, I wrote Body Sharers. The whole time, I was afraid surfing the terror would drive me crazy. Sometimes I woke in the night, startled, to Kim’s ghost sitting cross-legged on the foot of my bed, waiting for me. I was also afraid the constant terror of writing this book was molding my baby’s brain: I was pregnant with Delaney at the time. Now here we were, my daughter and I side-by-side, surfing what was for me Kim’s second murder.
“This is fun!” Delaney said, typing into her phone. “We can research it together!”
“Lisa, I’m so sorry,” Siren Suzannah Gilman wrote to me. “You’re still crying after 28 years because you love Kim, and now you’re not wondering because she just died again (to you) yesterday. It’s very sad. And that damned ‘domestic dispute’ language in the article makes me so angry. Because it implies that domestic abuse is just a problem between two people and that what’s going on is a two-way street.” As if Kim were as guilty as Roland. “It’s the old way of thinking.”
“Perhaps the only recompense for tragedy—for death and loss of innocence—is the chance to create some measure of beauty,” writes Tara DaPra of her book about her boyfriend’s suicide. “The marvel of a well-crafted sentence—finding just the right diction and syntax—is a small triumph over pain, a way to create order in the world. . . . After all, what is the human experience if not an attempt to order pain and chaos?”
I think that’s not entirely bullshit. And yet there’s a hell of a lot more to it than tidying your mental furniture. There’s fury, the mama bear rising up and roaring, protecting the best way she knows how. With her voice.