Over the River and Stabbed to Death — Essay by Randy Osborne
My childhood home is for sale — bank property, cheap — because of the murder in the backyard. I might buy it.
Not murder by the standard of law, the jury decided, but a violent and fatal act just the same. And not in the yard but in the main room of the house, the room where my grandmother Madeline worked her sewing-machine treadle decades ago. See how she pushes the fabric through and the needle jumps and cloth cascades off the table. The Singer whirrs, its clackety chatter like celluloid flapping loose on a full reel when the movie’s done. The curtain can never lift on that screen again, of course. Ridiculous to think. And yet.
Here’s what happened at 1802 S. Fourth St. in Rockford, Ill., about a week before Christmas 2011, according to trial testimony. Terry Johnson, 47, visits resident Raymond Gitchel, 59, for the purpose of smoking cocaine. They smoke cocaine. Johnson tries to steal a bag of heroin from another guest. He and Gitchel argue. Gitchel tells Johnson to get out. Johnson refuses. The dispute grows noisy, and someone appears from the second floor of the house with a baseball bat. But Gitchel acts first. He plunges a knife deep into Johnson’s thigh. Johnson cries out to all present, “He just stuck me!” Then to Gitchel, “I can’t believe you just cut me! I can’t believe you just stuck me!” Finally Johnson limps away — trouser leg no doubt soaked already — complaining that he will need stitches. He doesn’t get them. The knife has sheared his femoral artery. Johnson is bleeding to death.
Later, one of Gitchel’s housemates reports Johnson begging for help outside. Everybody ignores this. “Oh well, he should have left,” Gitchel remarks. The temperature sinks to 21 degrees that night. Next morning Johnson lies face up in the grass beside the chain-link fence.
What should we do, somebody asks. “I don’t know,” Gitchel says. “I’m going to make a sandwich.”
My grandmother Mad would love this story. I love this story. She raised me.
On pulpy detective magazines Mad raised me. On Poe and Hawthorne and the Bible (Old Testament only, please). On mythology, too, which is why Johnson’s thigh injury makes me think of the Grail King, his grievous wound, his barren land.
Mad raised me alone, her husband having jolted the family by leaving for some strumpet he met at work. An old man. They could hardly believe the sap still flowed. But when does it ever not?
In news video the day after the crime, trench-coated cops tromp the plank steps of Mad’s yellow-taped front porch. The same steps where I once sat, chin in hands, and waited for my life to start. I would grow up a writer or doctor — if the latter, a surgeon, specifically. I would incise people. The blade, like words, can harm or heal. Or I would be a radio star.
Gitchel paid $40,000 for the house in 1999, the year of my second marriage; today the bank asks $8,365. But the roof leaks, the wiring’s shot, and the furnace is stripped. “I don’t even go inside,” the real-estate agent tells me. Floors are falling through. The place is condemned.
Many scholars of the Grail legend believe that the word “thigh” is a euphemism for genitals, the king’s injury “a dolorous stroke.” Dolorous. Delores.
On a night in 1986, Ronald Ower became another man knifed and left to die in Delores Park, my favorite patch of San Francisco green. Teenagers wanting to “rob a faggot” attacked him as he made his way home. I learned about Ower while researching morel mushrooms.
A delicacy prized by chefs all over the world, the morel belongs to the genus Morchella.
Species names roll out like a magical chant: esculenta, rufobrunnea, augusticeps. Ower, a university student and aspiring biologist, was the first to cultivate morels. The New Scientist took notice. “Morel enthusiasts rejoice!” The day was near when they’d no longer need to “grovel through the woods” for “a few of these delectable fungi.” Ranging tan to black, morels are unmistakably phallic, as an author hints in the journal Mushroom. “I step back, circle and, for a moment, admire the spectacle. Stooping, I run my fingers gently along the surface of the cap, in and out of the grooves and hollows, down the long rubbery stem.” In the Midwest, the 1960s witnessed a morel bonanza thanks to Dutch elm disease’s massive kill-off. All those rotting stumps.
Ower grew morels on his kitchen table. He filed for a patent, outlined his methods in Mycologia, and signed a development contract with an agricultural biotech outfit in Michigan. But by the time his patent cleared, Ower no longer dwelt among the quick.
His killing happened, coincidentally, on the night of my birthday. Because I scan the world non-stop for such discoveries, I can’t help but notice also that Ower’s initials match my own. It makes sense to me that his last name, spelled as if to suggest a debt, is pronounced like a unit of time.
In 1967, my mother clinched her own second husband and retrieved me from Mad. Our time felt less deep than I expected. I had her at last, yet I didn’t. He had her, in that bedroom down the hall. This my mother and I shared: During the damp seasons, we foraged in the woods for morels. “Delicious because they are wild,” she told me, herself now less wild than ever.
Super-domestic, in fact. Free of the workplace and happily kitchen-bound, she refined her cooking skills to the delight of my retired stepfather. A few years passed. They decided to scale it up. They bought a restaurant.
Here I washed dishes, and swept floors, and met Cheryl. Doe-eyed, full-lipped Cheryl, 16, with a pageboy haircut and springy step, at her first job, waiting tables. The sexual draw was almost immediate, and mutual.
I was 21, and I was the son of her boss. She wasn’t even legal. I didn’t care. Did, but didn’t.
Also I was the obvious choice, wasn’t I, when Cheryl’s parents told her that she could only attend the outdoor concert at Sinnissippi Park if accompanied by someone older, someone responsible?
The music is nearly over. Cheryl sits between me and her friends. I am behaving. But then, I can … feel her. I turn and meet her stare. Reader, I lean into that jailbait. Her lips first a pliant mash, then breathily open. Noses to cheeks. Tongues teaching each other, being taught. It goes on for about a half-minute.
We pull away and cast our eyes at anything elsewhere, dizzy.
The rest is hardly worth telling. Cheryl’s friends take her home. At work Monday we’re both shy. I speak to her in a distant way, almost cordially after that, certain that I’ll be taken into custody any day.
My parents sell the restaurant, and it’s years later when I see Cheryl’s wedding notice. The last name of her fiancé is peculiar and sticks with me — might have anyway — and his first name is the same as mine. Naturally, I attach meaning to this, take points. She wanted me.
2013: Jurors acquitted Gitchel of murder but convicted him of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced him to five years in prison, with credit for 508 days served. At the Rockford newspaper’s website, where I went to comb the archives for details, the current front page blasted news of a major drug bust. “Nearly 30 people have been taken off the streets along with around two million dollars’ worth of cocaine, marijuana, and prescription drugs. Among those arrested [are] a dentist, a high school football coach, and other area professionals.” Out of curiosity, since I knew a few people in town, I scanned the names — and there he was. The other Randy.
Had their marriage lasted? I Googled. Located him, but no Cheryl. Here’s a Facebook photo. Paunchy fellow in hotel pool with blonde babe, definitely not Cheryl. Rings on their pertinent fingers.
More legwork brought me Cheryl’s address. The Google street view shows a single-level house, solid white, set back from the road under a grove of trees that dapple the sunlight. In the driveway a small car, also white. Maybe it’s the weekend, she’s home. By herself?
I would contact her. Not online — that’s too impersonal. Phone call? Potentially awkward.
A letter, I’ll compose a letter. Everyone appreciates real mail with handwriting, ink.
No, I will do none of this. Nor will I buy Mad’s old place in some sorry attempt to grow again what can sprout one time only, and best existed wild. A torn, scattered-to-the-winds patchwork impossible to stitch back together.
But I hope Cheryl has replaced him, replaced the Randy that I foolishly imagine “replaced” me. Gendered humankind roams the earth with lonely holes and then each of us ends up in one. Nomads. Monads.
How can I, this bag of meat, dream ideas from nothing but air, make sparks in mud? How can I begin to know myself, before the credits roll? As with poor Johnson when he staggered from the Gitchel house, nobody wants to hear our shocked complaints. The wound is worse than we know. It finishes us.
Randy Osborne’s essays are listed in the Notable sections of Best American Essays 2015 and 2016. His writing has appeared ?in Salon, The Rumpus, Full Grown People, The Lascaux Review, Flyleaf Journal, Empty Mirror, Identity Theory, 3Elements Review, Bodega, SLAB, Loose Change, Green Mountains Review, Spry Literary Journal, Scene Missing, Thread, and other small magazines, as well as the Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Journal Constitution, San Francisco Bay Guardian, and St. Louis Post-Dispatch. His work has been published in four print anthologies and nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize, as well as Best of the Net. This essay originally appeared in SunStruck Magazine. Image by Randy Osborne