We are all hot, light sweat forming from the walk from parked car up the courthouse steps, crammed into a tiny room to learn that a homicide investigation is indeed a homicide investigation, but we’re sorry we can’t tell you anything else.
One reporter is angry; she talks too loud, too fast, when she asks her questions. I ask mine too quietly, knowing it is a waste of airspace because no one will actually answer a question. I want to ask why they called a press conference just to tell us what we already know; I think she wants to ask that, too. Neither of us do.
They know something I don’t, these camera men and well-dressed reporters; the crime was closer to them than to me, and they’d been involved since last week, before the assault became a homicide. I came in for the press conference, the drawer of the short straw.
I hear their half-whispered conversation, want to know what they know. Driving back up hills and down valleys, I take the turn through a tiny village toward the dead man’s home, turn around in driveways, follow green signs with white lettering, count down the miles. Horse dung litters the shoulders of the narrow road; yellow signs warn of buggies; I passed an Amish man, his team of brown, heavy, solid horses; an ancient piece of farm equipment I can’t place; his young son waving wildly at a passing motorcycle. Every child is the same, I think. Every little boy likes cars and trucks and fast motorcycles.
In the town, old and run down, I count down streets until I reach his, miss it, turn around, find the old man’s rundown trailer. The camera trucks beat me – I guess they knew a faster way than mine, the one that wound through Amish fields and quiet hamlets and many wrong turns.
The heat hits me as I step out onto the pavement, from a hazy sky it beats down on me, from a scorching pavement it rises against my calves. I pick through tall grass and weeds, legs itching, stiff cotton dress clinging to my back, knocking on doors. “Did you know him?” I ask.
An ancient woman watering drying petunias can’t hear me, calls me up into the heavy shade of her porch. Her flowers are dying, she says curtly when I start out with flattery. Her eyes are piercing blue, and sharp, but her mind and words are wandering. Did she see anything that night? Well, you know she’s up a lot during the night — that’s why she wears pads — and I struggle to pull her off the subject of incontinence and back to her neighbor.
Her daughter arrives, curious and unsure why I’m here. Her mother’s 95, she says, puts bread out for the dead man’s cats. She’s been afraid since it happened.
In the old, white farmhouse, the old woman’s grandson is living in the same home his great-grandfather built. He can’t believe it either. Who would hate a 79-year-old man so much they could beat him to death?
I’m wondering the same as I pick my way through his tall grass, notice the immense pile of wood crates and tires and bike wheels and garbage bags under his porch, the padlocked porch door, the crazy-leaning raised garden with tomatoes and squashes blooming out of straw bedding, the watering can on an old upholstered chair sitting outside the front door.
Who would beat an elderly man like that? Into unconsciousness, fracturing his skull, killing him. And why? One man, with his offspring’s infant footprints tattooed on his arm, says that’s why he believes in the death penalty. But he also says the old man would do anything to make a little money, and abruptly stops talking.
Back in the chill of an air-conditioned office, I learn a little more about the old man, accused of indecent assault 15 years ago and imprisoned for drug offenses more than once. He was 65 at the time of the last charge.
And now I wonder about cocaine, and old habits that die hard, and an old man who should have been settling into wisdom laying in state in a funeral home today, waiting for burial, and some one else waiting too, to be found out, or perhaps he or she or they already have been found and we’re all just waiting for another press conference to tell us something this time…
And the grandson-neighbor goes about washing his truck, and his grandmother waters her flowers and feeds her neighbor’s cats until the Humane Society comes, and the police have gone and the cameras are leaving and there’s a piece of yellow police tape caught in the weeds.
It’s a sad story with a sad ending, I think. But I only know a fraction of it.