A Small Town Vigil

by Katie Burpo

To Whom It May Concern:

         When I was a boy, I waded knee deep in shit and snakes every summer morning, early, at the damn hatcheries. As you know, our humble town was once the goldfish capital of the world! As a young man, I ran wind sprints and drank salted Kool-Aid in the John R. Wooden gymnasium. I learned to shoot lay-ups. I never met Mr. Wooden, but he became a real big shot out in California. FDR once bathed in our Artesian springs. He died anyway.

          That’s it. That’s all I could think of. This town and everything in it is just plain piddly. If the rest of you can figure out how to go on in this eensy little shit hole, more power to you. When I asked Kathy and the girls, they came up short. This was the only way.

Yours,

Mr. Abraham Thacker

The Wilkersons were out of town visiting Gatlinburg, Tennessee when Abe Thacker killed himself and his whole family, setting off a chain reaction of suicides stretching the length of Walnut Street, fizzling out at the Burton Lane intersection. This was the first murder-suicide ever to take place in Martinsville, Indiana. Apparently, the paperboy was the first to find Abe Thacker, his wife, and their two daughters dead in the kitchen. The front door had been cracked, which seemed odd to the paperboy, so he let himself in, read the note Abe had left, then offed himself with the very same gun, landing right next to all of them on the ruined laminate floor. The paperboy left the door wide open.

Later on, the Schwan man rolled by ready to drop off the Thackers’ regular order: two boxes chicken cordon bleu, one half gallon Schwan Special Mint Chip Ice Cream. He walked right in, read the note on the counter and took it next door where he showed it to the neighbors. The neighbors had to agree. Abe had a point. They followed the Schwan man out to his big yellow truck, crammed into the cab, and pulled into the garage. Exhaust running, they took their last meal from the truck’s freezer – frosty orange push-up pops – and waited. When the mailman showed up, he raised the garage door, concerned about the smoke coming from inside, discovered the victims, took the note, then dropped it in the next neighbors’ mailbox. The mailman hanged himself from the Sycamore tree in their front yard with the strap of his messenger bag. Death leapfrogged block to block like this, until, finally, the street ended.

When Hank Wilkerson and his parents returned from vacation, everyone on their street was dead. A lot had happened in two weeks. In their mailbox, they found a pamphlet authored by town historian, Jo-Ann Steuben – she always did such quick work – entitled How to Tell Your Children About the Abe Thacker Massacre. The first page chronicled the event using a lexicon of euphemisms. The second page insisted that, contrary to popular opinion, Abe Thacker did not kill himself because Martinsville could never manage to get a Cracker Barrel restaurant. Stueben wrote, “Despite the sorrow and hardship that has befallen this town due to the lack of a Cracker Barrel restaurant, this is not the sole reason for Mr. Thacker’s unfortunate demise. However, it may well have been a multiplying factor.” Mr. and Mrs. Wilkerson found “multiplying factor” to be an understatement. All the parents had petitioned year after year for a Cracker Barrel. They have the best biscuits, and everything fried like a chicken.

“We should have seen this coming,” said Mr. Wilkerson.

“If only they’d listened,” said Mrs. Wilkerson.

They said nothing to Hank, their thirteen-year-old son. He would have to read the pamphlet on his own.

As Hank understood it, Mrs. Steuben’s pamphlet wasn’t so much about the kids as it was about the grown-ups. Most of what she wrote seemed obvious to Hank, that there are lovely things about their little town, ways to keep busy, etc… Mrs. Steuben believed in the power of lists, and encouraged everyone in town to make them. Eventually, like the other kids in town, Hank came across his parents’ lists for living. Top drawer bedside table, tucked beneath the handgun that his father kept close in case of an intruder. Hank had only ever seen his father fire the gun once, and that was just to scare away some critters tearing up his mother’s garden. He recalled what Mrs. Steuben had said in her pamphlet about keeping weapons in the house at a time like this, and he thought about taking the gun, stashing it in the bottom of the giant Rubbermaid container where he stored his million Lincoln Logs, Legos, and Erect-A-Sets. He started to lift it from the drawer, but, startled by how heavy it was, left it resting there. He slid the pieces of paper out from beneath the pistol and read.

Raymond H. Wilkerson’s List for Living

1) Hunting Season.
2) Appleworks Orchard.
3) Beer.

That List was stapled to another sheet of paper embroidered in his mother’s handwriting.

1) Hank.
2) Chocolate Brownie Sundaes.
3) Mama.

Hank sat down to make his own List, but it was too long. He could think of millions of reasons to go on living.

Months went by, and the Abe Thacker Massacre repeated itself with different instigators on different streets in town, until the death toll reached nearly a hundred. The mayor called a town hall meeting. The announcement ran on the front page of the paper, “Everyone come. Bring the Lists. And the Kids.” This was the first time anyone had ever called such a meeting and no one was sure how to go about it, but they had the examples from television and the movies, so they felt like they could at least give it an honest shot. There was no town hall to speak of, so the gathering would be held in the new addition off the sanctuary of the Presbyterian Church. Some of the ladies brought covered dishes and Jell-o cakes, and the mayor shook his head. He had said, “town meeting,” not “church picnic.” The venue must have confused everyone. Regardless, the table that was supposed to hold only the electric coffee urn and Styrofoam cups was soon filled with Pyrex and crock pots. A tiny trash can overflowed with wadded tin foil and plastic wrap. No one had thought to bring paper plates. Someone would have to run to the IGA before long.

After everyone was settled, the mayor directed the citizens to a freshly installed white board that ran down the side of the reception hall. He ripped open packages of dry erase markers and scattered them on the chalk tray.

“Now then,” he called out and cleared his throat. “I want all of you to write your lists up here on the board, and make sure you’re conscientious about leaving enough room for everybody.”

This same pudgy, bespectacled guy had been mayor since Hank could remember. At home, there were pictures on the wall of his mother, young, long-haired, and skinny, winning various school and community awards, smiling and shaking hands with this same mayor’s more strapping, slicked back former self. Hank decided that when he was old enough to vote, he wouldn’t cast a ballot for this guy. He was too fat and Hank despised the stupid voice he used as announcer at all the home basketball games. The mayor used that same voice here, today, as he tried to maintain order.

“And don’t let the kids write their lists up there, please folks,” he shouted. “We just don’t have the time.”

The parents worked quickly. The handwriting was sloppy all around, as if no one wanted to be identified by the contents of their list. Hank’s mother had the most beautiful handwriting in town. She even made money on the side doing calligraphy for wedding invitations. Hank couldn’t locate her elegant, curling script anywhere on the board. He found some of the other kids from his class and they stood near the food table together, sweetening hot cups of coffee with spoonfuls of sugar substitute. The parents had formed a line and were walking down the white board like it was the Vietnam Memorial or some wall in a fancy art gallery. They read each list intently and some of them took notes on tiny memo pads. It was as if the parents had forgotten entirely that the children were in the room. Small shoes had come off. There was kicking and punching. Hollering and running around. The parents didn’t notice. Hank and the other older kids giggled and whispered at the number of times words like “pussy” and “ass” appeared on the board as reasons to go on living. The mayor was slow with his eraser.

Eventually, all the parents took seats in folding chairs behind carefully aligned tables. The mayor stood at the front of the hall behind a miniature podium atop a lone table.

“You all know why I have called you here today,” the mayor said in his sing-song, starting line-up voice. The parents looked uneasy. Hank wondered if anyone would come out and say what was really going on. The parents were quiet. Ceiling fans whooshed and clattered in the rafters – no coughs or rustling of candy wrappers or nose blowing.

“I’ll ask everyone, once again, to look to your right,” the mayor continued. He gestured to the white board covered in letters and bullet points. “I think your lists speak for themselves. Our work here is done.” He sat down and unbuttoned his suit jacket.

A man in the front rose from his chair. He nodded toward the mayor as if to ask permission before addressing the meeting at large. “As someone who’s lived here my whole life,” he said. “I think I got a pretty good idea about what goes on around here. I played football for Mr. Mayor when he was the coach, raised my kids here, and I been on the Fall Foliage Festival Board of Trustees for seven years. I’m damn tired of watching my friends and family suffer because of what we seen with Abe Thacker.” He took off his cream and crimson IU ball cap and scratched the back of his head. He looked strangely confident addressing the crowd. Most people did indeed know Jim Johnson, but not as many as Jim wanted to think. It had been years since the football team had run the “Johnson Special” to win state, and there were lots of other used car salesmen in town to buy from. Jim often said he could sell anything to anybody.

“Now, you all know me,” he continued, “and I’m not one to get all touchy feely, but I think we should get together somewhere and talk this out. We could make a weekend of it.”

And so it was decided. The Abe Thacker Massacre Memorial Retreat and Spring Fling was scheduled for the coming May. The Bradford Woods County Recreation Area would serve as venue. Cracker Barrel catering would be shipped in from the college town down the road. The daffodils would be in bloom and hopefully nobody would get rained on.

According to the mayor’s research, there was an extreme discrepancy between grown-ups and kids when it came to lists for living. List-makers aged six to eighteen averaged 271.6 reasons not to kill themselves per list. List-makers over eighteen averaged only 7.5. As a way to bring these disparate groups together, the mayor enforced required classes for adults meeting three days per week after work hours led by the more prolific, younger generation of list-makers. In a single afternoon, Hank had come up with 489 reasons to live. He was immediately considered for a position as anti-suicide instructor.

In his third week of teaching, Hank left the eighth grade wing where he attended class and walked across the courtyard, through the breezeway that connected the middle school to the elementary school. He taught class in his former second grade room, a place he remembered fondly. Second grade was the year in which he read The Mouse and the Motorcycle. It was the first book he had ever loved. They had also kept an incubator filled with hen eggs. They hatched three chicks that they named Genesis (short for Sega Genesis), Genesis II, and Game Boy Chick. Hank could still remember the soft, warm fur against his palms, and the musty, poop smell of their little cage. Since then, he had felt strange about eating eggs.

Hank had been assigned an extremely troubled group of students – the insurance salesmen. These men spent their days seeking commission and asking people to take out policies on their lives. Every month, every month, they had to collect premiums and adjust claims and bring in new clients. The only enjoyable part of the job was driving around with a Polaroid camera, taking photos of all the insured homes. They could do as they pleased in their own cars, even during the workday.

“Let’s talk some more about why you’re so sad about your life,” Hank said. He sat down in a swiveling office chair at the front of the room. There was a barbeque sauce stain on his shirt from lunch that he had failed to rub out with liquid hand soap and paper towels in the bathroom. He folded his arms to hide it. He wanted to look put together, professional. He liked teaching – the authority, the gratification, the feeling of chalk between his fingers, gliding across the blackboard.

“I just want to sleep in,” one of the man-students answered. “And I hate wearing a tie.”

“I want to choke myself and my fat secretary with my stupid tie,” another one said. “She won’t even do my filing for me. All she does is sit on her fat ass all day answering calls and eating candy.” He raised his arms and shrugged. “I’m like, what are you supposed to be doing if you don’t even do my filing?”

“I banged my secretary,” another one said. “When I told my wife, she just laughed at me. She still doesn’t believe I have it in me to go after another woman.”

Hank stood at the blackboard, recording short versions of what the salesmen were sharing. Like to sleep in. Ties – bad. Secretaries – lazy, fat, do not file. Job causes problems with wife. He turned to face the class and clapped away the white dust on his fingers. He leaned against the chalk ledge and stroked his chin.

“What you have to understand,” Hank said, “is that you shouldn’t be doing a job that you hate. And you should only be married to a woman you love.”

“What are we supposed to do, quit?”

“You have to learn how to do what you like, but not for your hobby, like, in a real job where you make money.” Some of the men nodded. “Everyone get out a piece of paper, please. Now, write down what you want to be.”

“Is it okay if we draw pictures?” one asked.

“That’s fine,” Hank said. “Be creative.”

Hank expected them to draw firemen or police officers or chefs or judges. Tow truck driver would have worked, or park ranger. He wanted them to draw things that he could understand and predict. He wanted them to remember what it was like to draw without thinking, to know what they wanted so certainly that the drawing could almost precede the thought. Today, in his mind, Hank drew himself as a video game designer and part-time sports writer. Options were important.

The salesmen passed their drawings forward. Hank looked around for a step stool. He wasn’t tall enough to reach the cork strip at the top of the blackboard where he wanted to post all the drawings. His students, of manly height, could easily reach, and one of them volunteered to hang the papers for him. The first picture was of a man on a beach, drinking an exotic beverage from a hollowed out coconut. The room was silent. “It’s a stock broker,” one of them finally said. “They’ve got the big bucks to hit up the Caribbean and stuff.”

“Okay,” Hank said. “Good. But how is this job different from the one you have?”

“It’s more money. And easier. All you have to do is read them little codes and sell the ones that cost the most.”

“Very good,” said Hank. “But what is the verb you’re using?”

“Sell,” several of them said together.

“Excellent,” Hank said. He wrote S-E-L-L in block letters on the board, then crossed it out. “Let’s try to focus on jobs that don’t require selling stuff. Just as a start.”

They continued discussing the drawings. One was a man in an animal print suit who was supposed to be a pimp, but that involved selling. Another was a man with sunglasses getting his picture taken – a movie star. Was he selling himself? Someone drew a waiter wearing a black bow tie. Sales. An architect in a hard hat, holding blueprints. Someone would eventually have to buy his building. And so on.

“So,” one of them said. “Pretty much all we learned today is there’s not much to do that don’t involve selling.”

“Great,” said another. “Then we really are stuck in this shitty-ass business. What the heck are you driving at? Throw us a bone here or something.”

“Maybe it’s money that’s the problem. Something’s always for sale when there’s money involved.”

“What the hell are we supposed to do without money?”

“This is some red, commie bullshit.”

“I ain’t working for free. For nobody.”

Hank walked over to the lectern and drew out the textbook for the course, the amended, annotated version of Steuben’s How to Tell Your Children About the Abe Thacker Massacre. He turned to the chapter on Lifestyle & Occupation. None of the students had chosen “teacher” for their drawing. Hank jotted down several other careers from the suggested list as far outside the realm of sales as he could imagine. He made a note in his lesson plan not to use this activity with next year’s class.

* * *When the UPS man found Jim Johnson, his wife, and their three daughters bled out on their screened-in porch, people weren’t exactly surprised. Jim talked a big game about home and family and values and all that, but everyone in town knew that Jim’s wife wanted to leave. No one was sure where she’d really go. Usually, women who filed divorce already had something else lined up, but no one had heard of any affairs or plans on Sherry’s part. People didn’t understand leaving something for nothing. Besides, every spring Sherry planted tulip bulbs along the front porch. People understood that as a metaphor of roots. Jim and his daughters had tried everything. Ball games, vanilla Cokes, trips to Cracker Barrel. Nothing could cheer her up.

The five of them had been dead three days before the UPS man checked around back after no one answered the door. The above-ground pool and high, heirloom shrubberies in the backyard had obscured them from view. They had no pets; Sherry wouldn’t have abided the mess. The girls were afraid to have friends over. They never knew what sorts of things their mother might say and do in front of acquaintances. Jim had sworn to all his buddies that the only weapon in his house was the bee-bee gun he left out in the garage, and he only kept that because it reminded him of his childhood over on Sumner Street, the way they used to have contests to see who could kill the most bean cans balanced on a sawhorse. He didn’t even keep any ammo. In the coroner’s photos, each Johnson holds a .32 in his or her right hand, except for the youngest girl who was a lefty. All five wounds were identical, gaping holes at the nape of the neck, as if they had stood in a circle behind one another and all fired on the count of three. There was an uneaten platter of hamburgers and hot dogs on the patio table next to a coagulated pot of stove-top macaroni and cheese. The paper plates and ketchup and mustard were still inside on the kitchen counter. There were jagged slits in the screens where animals, attracted by the smell of meat, had tried to get in.

* * *The schedule of events for the Abe Thacker Massacre Memorial Retreat and Spring Fling included mandatory workshops for adults led by the elected child instructors, the premiere of Jo-Ann Steuben’s documentary film, A Small Town Vigil: Remembering Abe Thacker, various gravy-laden buffets, a key note lecture by the mayor, and poster presentations by the children. All the events would culminate in Sunday night’s re-enactment of the massacre itself. It was easier than they had expected to find willing actors to fill the parts. Hank would play the paperboy.

The Saturday morning workshops at Bradford Woods proved productive, if slightly unorthodox. They broke for lunch, and after the buffet and a few heated altercations over the last pieces of chicken, the crowds relocated to the amphitheatre. They watched the new Steuben documentary on a big screen, seated on benches made of maple and poplar trunks. Steeped in late spring sunshine, the townspeople began to grow warm, restless. Trees overhead bore the full weight of their foliage – dense and vital and green. The air did not move to make the sound of rustling. There was no wind to stir the smells of dirt and leaves and impatient bodies. Everything was dense and solid, tightly sealed as a pickle jar.

Speakers spoke. Presenters presented. The East-West Middle School combined Drama Club, dressed in head-to-toe black, stomped and scraped stage right to stage left, hauling pieces of set, arranging props, hiding theatrical surprises. They didn’t know, no one knew, but this would be the first and last performance of Remember the Thackers. There would be no need in the future. No audience. Before that day, Hank had heard the word backfire and understood it meant more than noisy exhaust pipes or bottle rockets held wrong side up.Backfire, ironically, would be the only word anyone could think of to describe the aftermath of the skit, of the retreat itself. To outsiders, the motivation for such a mass statement and the tragedy of it were one in the same. It could have been religion, isolation, or some other nameless dread that drove an entire community to snuff itself out. Exiting that retreat gone wrong as one of the few survivors, Hank recalled something his father had once said about the power of suggestion. “If you tell a bunch of people something they can do, then tell them they ain’t supposed to do it, they’re just gonna wanna do it more,” he’d said. Perhaps the re-enactment had been the wrong instinct.

On stage, a middle-aged man sits in a cobalt blue La-Z-Boy in front of a working television. A real movie is playing. The man in the recliner regards the film, cocks his head. He is visible from the side, wearing heavy make-up, holding a Sprite. On the can, someone has pasted a white label and written “beer” in block, magic-marker letters. He stands, stretches a bit, then walks toward a counter and refrigerator box resting upon an island of fake linoleum. The fridge box, too, has been decorated. The handle from someone’s actual ice-box has been glued to the front, a 3-D effect. He stands at the counter and sighs hugely, his shoulders jerking up and down in one quick motion. He scratches the top of his head and squints, then begins writing. He speaks aloud the contents of the note he composes. A woman and two girls enter. He asks them a question. They shake their heads. One starts to cry in a dry, jumpy sort of way. The man raises his hand which holds a weapon. Puffs of smoke balloon from the man’s gun along with a sound like snapping chicken bones. The girls fall one by one. They fidget a little after they’ve died and some red liquid eventually begins to run from beneath one body to the next to the next. Before the man takes his fall, he re-reads the note, then shrugs again. The gun goes off before it makes contact with the skin on his temple.

The paperboy whistles as he approaches from stage left. He cups his hands around his mouth and hollers through an imaginary door. Downstage, the family’s blood gathers speed and drips out of the scene, onto the hard-packed dirt in the amphitheatre. It is the color of candied apples, a brilliant shine that makes the red look like millions of colors at once. The paperboy cries a little, convincingly, before reading the note. He picks up a pencil, replaces it, disappears behind the counter and returns, gun in hand. It is light weight, fragile enough to crack with a single hand’s pressure. Late afternoon sun illuminates the stage, and the paperboy has grown a sweat moustache. His eyebrows are drenched and sparkling. When he falls, he is the only one whose face is turned toward the audience. Before any real shots are fired, someone sitting very near the stage sees the paperboy mouth a few words. Hunting. Apples. Beer.

*

Katie Burpo hails from a small town in south-central Indiana that also seems “barely south.” Her fiction explores that interesting space. She is currently in her third year of the MFA at Western Michigan University. Her first publication, a creative non-fiction essay entitled “A Series of Wilderness Related Injuries,” is forthcoming in Chautauqua Literary Journal.