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Excerpt from Lee Hennessy's

Killer, By Trade


“The headshrinkers will one day ask me to define my life as I know it. Living on C block by now, I am reading The Divine Comedy, thus my answer might reflect Dante’s vision of hell as much as the truth of what put me here. Instead of an Inferno, however, I perceive my existence—as well as everyone’s—in the context of a pit, or chasm, something walled-in by any declining enclosure; perhaps like a valley. Yea, do I walk through it, impervious to the shadow of death because in the valley, that shadow is mine.

"In the valley, we members of the Group became different people than we were before the tragedy. Undoubtedly, we were these people all along while even we, ourselves, didn’t know it. Before the defining events, we were normal, and then comes the valley, and in our descent, we change. This parlays into the quintessential poetry of the vigilante, the ironic beauty—however hideous it may be. In the end, you have to become what you hate in order to overcome it. The day our people died, we learned of the valley, and it hardly mattered that the guy who killed them (if he actually did) was arrested by the end of the week, later convicted and remanded to federal custody for the remainder of his days. By the time that gavel fell, we were all long gone into the valley, shadows and all; ourselves succumbing to the darkness as events took their course and plans were made. Taking Anspach out of custody would be the easy part; getting ourselves out of the valley would require nothing short of a miracle. It is, I can tell you, a miracle that never arrives.

"After we succeeded, it led us not from the darkness but further into it, and you keep pressing on because you believe you are heading toward peace. There were others like him out there, thus Anspach might as well be as free as they were--yet with each one we captured, we only found ourselves further locked into forward motion. In the beginning, we even thought of ourselves as superheroes, but no one except Virgil, as far as I know, actually vocalized that notion. Of course, we’re anything but superheroes; we’re the people who rent you bowling shoes on Friday night, or drive your kids to school in that big yellow bus, or sell you light bulbs at the hardware store. Our kids play alongside yours at school, and date your daughters and sons in those years that arrive too fast for every parent.

"Once your journey into the valley begins, you can learn to love it or hate it, but no one ever seems to turn back. To do so would be to spit in the eye of that human sense of adventure that drives us through our lives; the kind that got us on boats bound for a new continent, then into wagons in order to cross it. One reason we never turn back is because one doesn’t know they’re in the valley until they’re halfway to the bottom.

"The streets in it look the same as any other; there’s a factory somewhere in the vicinity; the sun still rises; the ice cream truck still motors through town playing bad versions of great songs. I would venture to suggest that all of us live inside it somewhere, but most are near the top, dealing with such concerns as the economy, or which kid is going to need braces, or when he, she, they or we are going to pass from this earthly realm. The farther down you travel, of course, the more you find problems that don’t have answers, or at least not good ones. Here, we find questions like: Is this worth risking my life, or Can I trust the people closest to me, or What exactly did these young, innocent victims buy with their lives?

"On a normal day it’s easier to pretend we all live in the same world. If a car passes by you with its radio blaring and I am near, I too will hear it, but why do I look upon the world and see threats while so many others look at the same world and see opportunity? Ultimately, we do not live in the same world, do we?

"As a case in point: On days we had a job to do, the brightest sunshine will become like the darkest country night--it all depended on what that job might require to achieve a successful resolution. On those days, I sometimes saw things or did things which ensure later memories so bad they will wake me out of a dead sleep--and they do. I thought I might forget some things if I moved away, but the gravitational pull from inside the valley is strong enough to pull at you even if it doesn’t completely haul you back. I felt it greet me the night I was brought back to my home town after an absence of (#) years. Perhaps more accurately, I felt it close in like claustrophobia.

"Cosmetically-speaking, very little had changed. The buildings still looked old in a familiar way, but I could've been superimposing memories of more innocent times. It was the middle of the night as Chop’s Monte Carlo brought me up Main Street through Old Towne Port Haven, coming in from I-69 Blvd, and details obviously weren’t as clear as daylight would've allowed. There were streetlights, of course, but they have no chance against the shadows. Even without sight, I knew some things hadn’t changed. Its people are patriotic blue and white collar Americans, like most American towns--or, in this case, ‘mid-size’ American cities. It’s big enough to offer anything you need, but small enough to afford one the sight of familiar people throughout the course of any given day. Everyone doesn’t necessarily know each other, but still you see the same faces for years despite the lack of names. You see them at the supermarket or sitting in the next car at a stoplight. Why should a group session of grief counseling be any different?

"There were forty-seven of us on the first day. I’d say I knew about eighty percent of the faces, maybe ten percent of the names. That part of my brain that tries to explain everything in metaphor had completely failed to wrap these days in any kind of logic. Back then, there was no way to describe exactly how the world had tangibly changed, or maybe no desire to want to; just this empty paralysis that put me outside of my body, watching events like a spirit helpless to affect the solid objects of the material world. They invited us to be in each other’s company, promising refreshments as though cookies could take the place of what we’d lost. Sitting there in the midst of them, listening to the memories of these shattered people, I remember my attention drifting out the windows to appreciate that mocking sunlight my kid brother would be enjoying if he wasn’t in a coma, and I remember wondering whether the monster who’d taken him away from our family also appreciated this beautiful day.

"By then, school had been let out for two weeks, and traditionally, these days keep a sense of celebration hanging in the air, but not this year. Anspach decided to change things and change them he did, for everyone. In this town, if you didn’t lose someone at least tangentially affiliated with your family, than you know someone who did. I would look around the room and see the mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, but no journalists. These “meetings” were closed to the press, but I always wondered if one of those vultures might've snuck in anyway, assuming the guise of a grieving cousin whose station no one could truly refute.

"What would society learn from these people's pain? What cautionary tale would benefit us commensurate with the lifelong paralysis of my little brother?

"I had to wonder if an outsider could possibly hope to see the darkness which existed right alongside the light of that late-May sunshine, hanging oppressively over me and all those other lives forever changed by a disgruntled janitor’s bullets and depraved sense of logic, assuming there was any in the first place.

"There were a few of us who gravitated closer to each other than we'd ever been before: me, Virgil, Lilly--principles, as in: principle Family Members of the Victims. We all knew each other a little before the day. Virgil didn’t last long. One day he was sitting there, lost like the rest of us, and the next time I looked back, he was gone, never to return.

"Before I even knew what the valley was, I somehow knew I wouldn't slide all the way down into it, but Virgil Wolcott was like a kid who’d been born at the very bottom and didn't know there was anything else. Virgil’s younger sister was a Primary Victim, with one significant difference from Dennis: I could still visit my brother, even if he didn't recognize me for several weeks after his coma ended.

"Virgil would never have more than a memory.

"Lilly lost her sister, Lottie. Like I said, we’d known each other before this, but I had never felt the inkling that I would someday fall in love with this girl. That happened later. If there was a silver lining, for me, it was her, at least for as long as it lasted. She would pass whenever the mediator—this grey-haired old sweetie who’s kids had long since left the town of Port Haven behind—asked her if she felt like talking about Lottie. As I would with so many others, I became a soldier beside that woman, but in those days, she was a girl barely old enough to drive. From where I sat, I could see her tense up, eyes on the floor, withstanding that quiver of emotion that precedes losing one’s shit, and I wished I could say something to her that would let her know I was in the same place. There wasn’t anything to say, of course, then or now.

"It would be Virgil who eventually pulled the pin on the grenade, but I think many were as relieved as horrified when he did. Even as I participated in the plan to break out Anspach, seeing it happen right in front of me, knowing a corner had been turned, I cannot deny that I felt euphoria for the first time since Dennis had been shot.

"You might notice I’m speaking about an event without actually describing it. There’s a reason for that, and it’s not about being mysterious. I doubted many of these folks were able to face the harsh reality head-on, either, as they left those group sessions to return to their sad homes. Some still can't, and of them, I am one. In those first dark days, those in that spacious room at the conference center had only recently buried their lost. Knowing the human face and name of our enemy was worth absolutely nothing as long as he was in custody. Michigan didn’t have the death penalty, and so it looked like that demon would continue to enjoy our sunshine, even it was from behind concrete and barbed wire for the rest of his mortal days.

"Jump ahead ten years and that's when I returned from the Big Apple, riding through newly-wet streets from an earlier storm, vaguely concealed beneath a scratchy blanket with my head down low and leaning against the window. Jump ahead another twenty and you'll find me today. That rainy night in the summer of 1990, I wasn't surprised to learn that Virgil became the psychotic we’d all expected him to—at least according to Choppy. Lilly was still a fixture of the place and always would be. I’d just come back from New York City, and not remotely clean, under security so tight they insisted I stay in one of their Detroit safe houses while they prepared accommodations in my hometown (#) miles north. The others had learned well how to hide the existence of the Group from the outside world; if they hadn’t, any inkling would've ensured national publicity.

"Chops was sharing gossip as we headed north up I-94 from the city, on our way to PH, and I hoped focusing on his voice might distract from those in my head that wouldn't shut up. Thankfully, his gossip was amusing enough to ensure it did. Everything he told me fell into place with what I remembered of the people involved. In fact, some stories conjured clearer images than I preferred. A lot had happened to the people I'd known before I left, and yet somehow, like the town itself, nothing had really changed.

"As for the Group on a professional basis, it turned out the original agenda had blossomed as I was tearing up the Big Apple for the past ten years. As for what I was doing there, that's a disaster with many chapters.”


[End of Excerpt]


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