A Boy Right Here in Town

“Well, they got him,” she says. “If that’s any consolation. They arrested him this morning. I heard it on the radio before I come. A boy right here in town.”
—Raymond Carver, “So Much Water So Close to Home”

My wife, Becca, says she was the first one to spot the McCloskey kid washed up on the shore of Franklin Hollow Lake. Ever since spring broke through the stubborn Virginia winter, she’d walked with a group of neighborhood wives in the evening. Twelve, maybe as many as fifteen of them. They walked the two miles around Franklin Hollow Circle, sometimes detouring along the drives that twisted off the road like snakes from Medusa’s head. Neighborhood watch, they called it, and we laughed. They carried weapons with them—Maglites, Little League bats, anything they could find in the garage or attic or basement that might fend off a burglar or vandal. They strapped Nalgene bottles of white wine to their fanny packs.

We—their husbands, that is—knew they did it to get away from the house for a while. Away from us, away from their kids, for just a few hours. Could we blame them? We weren’t in the greatest moods when we got home from work. The kids were out of their minds in those hours between dinner and bedtime, and I don’t blame Becca for wanting a few hours of exercise and female companionship to wind down. It gave them a chance to talk about their families, to blow off some steam.

Franklin Hollow wasn’t exactly a dangerous neighborhood. That’s why we’d all moved out there. A few kids drank on the pier over the manmade pond and threw their empty beer cans into the algae-choked water. Teenagers going through a Satanism phase spray-painted triple sixes and dicks all over the brick walls of Nativity Catholic Church. Other than that, it was a quiet neighborhood. It didn’t need a neighborhood watch, and if it had, our wives certainly wouldn’t have been the first choice to do the job.

A few weeks back, as Becca tells it, the ladies had felt particularly ambitious on one of their walks. Though the sun had all but set they’d strayed even further from their route, power walking along the tree-lined path that connected the main road with the lake trail. The evening was dark enough, but the daylight glowed faintly over the water, and Becca, stepping from the tunnel of trees and onto the lakeside path, the beam of her flashlight falling on the small waves that licked at the shore, saw something pale and limp and fleshy bobbing in the shallows. The women stopped, their hands over their hearts. Throats clenched, fingers tightened around their weapons.

“Jesus,” Becca said in the dark. “That’s an arm.”

They stepped forward and huddled along the shore. Up close they could make out the rest of the body. Mike McCloskey’s linebacker arms looked blue and thin through the water, the muscles slack, almost hanging from the bone.

The women didn’t carry their phones with them on these walks—that’s how badly they wanted time to themselves. If anyone twisted an ankle or something, they could usually just run up a neighbor’s driveway and ask for help. So with no phones they couldn’t call the police right away. And since they’d detoured to the lake that night, it would take at least ten minutes to get back to the nearest house.

“No one touch him,” Becca said. “We’ll all run back and call for help.”

“We can’t just leave him here,” Lynn Rogowski, the music teacher at Nativity Middle School, said. “What if the body sinks or drifts out by the time the police come?”

They all agreed. Though Mike’s arm rested against the soft mud at the shore, the rest of his body bobbed dangerously. It seemed the earth beneath the water quickly sloped downward.

“Maybe we can tie him in place,” Amanda Owen said, gesturing at a thin, shattered stump protruding at the edge of the water. “Is anyone wearing a belt?”

Becca was. They fastened one end to the stump and cinched the other end around Mike’s arm, but his flesh was so spongy and slick they couldn’t get it to hold. The loop slipped down the boy’s forearm and over his wrist.

“We’re going to have to drag him onto the shore,” Lynn said. “The police will understand.”

So four of them rolled their running pants up to their knees and waded into the water. The lake chilled their calves—though spring had arrived, the water hadn’t yet warmed to the point of comfortable swimming. After much pulling and grunting and shifting grips, they managed to haul Mike’s body to the trail. Under the moonlight his skin looked even bluer, almost reflective in its paleness, as if he’d absorbed the qualities of the water. His face was soft, his jaw relaxed. His eyes stared into the sky in still curiosity. Despite his size, he looked very much like a young boy.

It would later be ruled a suicide. His face betrayed none of the pain he’d been through.

*     *     *

Of course we’d all followed the case when, a year earlier, Mike had been arrested. He was a good kid. Defensive captain of the state champion Bishop Ireton football team. Volunteer for Special Olympics Virginia. And sure, maybe he was a bit of a ladies’ man. But that wasn’t all his fault. Between practice and workouts he didn’t have much time for a regular job, so we paid him to mow our lawns on weekends. A few times the previous summer, I could’ve sworn I caught Becca staring at his broad, tanned shoulders as he leaned into the mover—he always took his shirt off in the heat, sweat trickling along his back muscles—but I never got jealous. Mike was a young, handsome guy. Who could blame his wife for taking a peek? Didn’t we all catch ourselves looking at the high school girls at the Franklin Hollow Rec Center from time to time?

When Mike was accused of raping that little sophomore girl, none of us had believed it. But there he stood in the courtroom, dressed in a sharp gray suit and maroon tie—the Bishop Ireton colors—as Kimberly O’Donnell cried into her hands and told the prosecutor what had happened that night at Rick Perkins’s party. We sat in our living rooms and cringed at our televisions. Mike looked stoic enough, his parents in the seats behind him. But tears snuck into the corners of his eyes. There was just no way. No way at all he could’ve hurt someone like that.

Mike’s codefendant, on the other hand? Justin Wilson was this skinny kid, almost disgustingly so, with thin black hair and too-red lips. He dressed in baggy black clothing, and we all suspected he was one of those teenage Satanists. A creep like that would basically have to force himself on a girl in order to get any. So he made sense as a culprit. What didn’t make any sense was that Mike would associate with Justin. They’d been next-door neighbors growing up, but from what we heard they’d gone their separate ways once high school started. Mike was bright, popular, an athlete with a promising future. He wouldn’t fuck everything up for himself by doing something so stupid with the likes of Justin.

Kimberly O’Donnell wasn’t from Franklin Hollow. We didn’t know a lot about her. So when the accusations first came out, we read up about her in the papers, asked around, checked out her Facebook page. This poor girl was a mess. She’d been busted for marijuana possession three times. Seemed to always be locked into mandatory community service. She took some naked cell phone pictures of herself, which somehow circulated all over. Her dad served in Afghanistan, and her mom just didn’t seem to give a shit.

Between Kimberly’s questionable story and the lack of any solid evidence—a blurry cell phone video that didn’t prove anything, conflicting stories by people at the party, a bunch of character witnesses who all swore Mike was a real solid guy—Mike got off clean, just as he should have. Justin got eighteen years.

But even though he wasn’t found guilty, the months of coverage all but destroyed Mike’s reputation. He lost his football scholarship to Ohio State. Bishop Ireton High chose another salutatorian for its graduation ceremony. “Not because we believe Mike to be guilty of these accusations,” the principle said in his statement on the matter, “because we don’t. We’re making this change simply because we’d like to avoid any media circus that may surround such a proud, happy day for these students.”

It was awful—what the trial, what the media, did to Mike. One hundred percent unfair.

*     *     *

Nearly the entire neighborhood showed up for Mike’s funeral. We stood in the rain beneath black umbrellas. We’d all hoped for sunshine, for flowers, something that—symbolically at least—would show Frank and Elizabeth McCloskey that Mike had moved on to a better place. Instead the rain fell, and Mrs. McCloskey blew her nose over and over into already damp tissues.

Becca squeezed my arm as the priest talked about what a wonderful young man Mike had been, how he was certain God would forgive Mike, given how difficult things had gotten for him.

“I just keep thinking,” Becca whispered, “of what it would feel like to lose Marie.”

Marie, our daughter, had turned two over the winter. We’d left her at home with my mother. I pictured our little angel walking in her stumbling manner around the living room, swiping magazines from the coffee table as my mother laughed and sipped at her gin fizz.

“I’ll keep her safe,” I said, pressing my forehead against Becca’s. “I swear, I’ll always keep both of you safe.”

After the prayers had been said, after the flowers had been tossed and the casket had been lowered into the ground—Mrs. McCloskey letting out one final wail, her husband tightening his arm around her waist and crying into his own shoulder—we left. Before we reached our car, Becca broke away from me and wrapped Mrs. McCloskey in an embrace and said something in her ear.

In bed that night, I switched off the light as Becca rested her soft cheek against my chest.

“What’d you say to her?” I said, staring up at the ceiling.

“To who?” Becca said, her voice already heavy and slow.

“Elizabeth McCloskey,” I said.

“Oh,” Becca said. Her fingers curled, gathered my t-shirt into a bunch at my ribcage. “I told her we’d always remember Mike for the first eighteen years of his life, and never for the last few months.”

*     *     *

Let me tell you why we moved to Franklin Hollow.

Noisy streets, pollution, anything other than the very pettiest of crimes—these were unknown there. The novelty of the city wears off as you get older and your responsibilities increase. Take what happened to us. Becca had been five months pregnant, and we’d lived in this cozy little apartment—restored hardwood floors, big windows, open floor plan—above a bicycle shop in Georgetown. I’d begun teaching Economics at American University, and Becca worked at a design firm across the bridge in Rosslyn. It was, I felt, the ideal city life. You couldn’t have found a happier man on Earth.

One night, as Becca walked home from the market with paper grocery bags tucked under her arms, some guy in a Nationals cap stepped out of the shadows and pointed a gun at her chest. My wife, with my future child tucked in her belly, stopped.

The man said, “Purse.”

Becca’s never been one to roll over. She dropped the grocery bags but clutched her purse against herself. “No,” she said. Cars passed on M Street, and though Becca and her assailant stood in relative darkness, she couldn’t believe he’d hurt her out in the open like that.

The man grabbed the purse and pulled so hard he dislocated Becca’s shoulder. She fell to the sidewalk and he ran up the street.

Later—after I’d received her phone call, after I’d rushed from late-night paper grading at my campus office to the hospital, after I’d brushed Becca’s hair from her bruised face and promised we’d leave the city, that I’d never let something like this happen to her again—I asked her why in the hell she hadn’t just given the guy her purse.

“This is our home,” she said. “I was two blocks away from the apartment. If you let people threaten you in your own home, how will you ever feel safe?”

*     *     *

The Saturday after Mike’s funeral, our phone rang.

“Mr. Behar?” a man said. His voice was deep and friendly—a salesperson, I thought.

“Yup,” I said, ready to hang up on him.

“Mr. Behar, this is Detective Tysarczyk from the Fairfax County Police Department. Mr. Behar, is your wife in, by any chance?”

I looked around the corner into the living room. Becca sat on the couch with her sandaled feet on the coffee table, a sweating glass of iced tea in her hand. She watched Bar Rescue while Marie played with her dolls in the corner.

“Can I ask what this is about?” I said.

“Oh, it’s really nothing,” the detective said. “We just have a few more questions about that night your wife and her friends found Mike McCloskey. Just some things we’re trying to piece together.”

“A few more questions?” I said.

Becca looked over her shoulder at me. “Who is it?” she mouthed. I held up a finger: Wait.

“It’s just procedure,” the detective said. “Boring stuff, really. Paperwork that needs to be finished. Hey, could you put your wife on the line?”

“Yes?” Becca said when she took the phone. She spun slowly in place as she talked, wrapping herself in the cord like she did when she spoke with her mother. She bit the inside of her cheek and nodded seriously. “Absolutely. No, it’s not a bother. No, not at all. Now?” She looked at me. I walked around the kitchen, opening and closing cabinets for some reason.

“That detective wants me to come back down to the station,” Becca said.

“For what?” I said.

“They have some more questions,” she said, setting her purse on the counter and rifling through it.

“You already told them everything,” I said. “You all told them your story that night, I thought.”

“The detective said it’s more complicated with a high-profile case like this.” She flipped open her compact, touched up her lipstick. “He said they just need to clear some things up so they can officially close the case.”

“Why couldn’t he just talk to you on the phone?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Don’t you think I should cooperate with the police, though? Don’t you think I should just do what they ask?”

“Okay,” I said. I opened another cabinet and looked inside—stacks of plates, big and small, all white and clean. I noticed a loose screw on the door hinge and made a mental note to fix it later. “I guess that makes sense, since there were no witnesses. You all are all they’ve got to go on.”

“Exactly.” Becca put on her sunglasses and stood on her toes to kiss me. “Listen, would you keep an eye on Marie? I know you have yard work you want to do.”

“I’ll watch her,” I said.

“I can call a sitter,” she said. “Or your mother. I know you wanted to start digging up that old stump.”

“Don’t be silly,” I said.

“I won’t be long,” she said. “The detective said it would only be a moment.”

About an hour after she’d left, I sat drinking a beer on the couch when the phone rang again.

“Becca?” I answered.

“Frank, it’s Jim Rogowski.”

I didn’t know Jim all that well. Lynn’s husband. We saw each other at neighborhood cookouts, talked work and the Redskins. I always thought he tanned too much, and his summer wardrobe seemed entirely made up of polo shirts and white pleated shorts.

“Well hi, Jim,” I said.

“Hey Frank,” Jim said. “Did they call Becca in, too?”

“Yeah,” I said. I felt something cold slosh in my stomach, though it was probably the beer.

“Lynn left about an hour ago. I haven’t heard from her. I just wondered if, you know. They called all of them down.”

“I guess they did,” I said.

“Hey Frank, do you got any cold beers?”

I didn’t want Jim to come over. Marie had fallen asleep on the carpet among her toys. The ceiling fan spun slowly. The house was still and quiet, the sun slanting softly through the windows and glowing off the fronds of the fake potted palm tree in the corner. I work hard during the week—grading papers for four classes, advising students about their schedules, meeting with the department head and my colleagues. Weekends I’m always doing some sort of handiwork around the house. I rarely have an excuse to just sit there. But something in Jim’s voice sounded tight and desperate. He’d never once just called me and asked to stop over for a drink.

“Yeah, sure,” I said. “Come on by.”

We sat out on our screened-in porch, where I could keep an eye on Marie through the glass door. I packed a Styrofoam cooler with ice and Sam Adams and we sat there, listening to lawn mowers hum in the distance.

“I really just wonder what they’re asking them,” Jim said. He leaned forward and spun his beer bottle slowly between his palms.

“Just clearing some things up, I guess,” I said. “Like the detective told me.”

“You know, I can’t blame him,” Jim said.

“The detective?”

“No. Mike. McCloskey. For just ending it all like that. Poor kid’s life was wrecked after that little bitch dragged him through all that bullshit.”

“Hey now,” I said. I hated that word.

“Sorry about that,” Jim said. “It’s just, remember when we were their age?”

I tried to remember. I’ve never had a great memory for anything other than numbers. I remembered once my hair was longer and I slept until noon when I could.

“Nothing like this happened then,” Jim said. “People were, you know. Decent. Kind. No one I knew would ever make up a story like that about someone else.”

“You’ve got that right,” I said. I looked over the hill in our backyard. The sun dipped toward the tree line, the sky a pale shade of pink. I looked at my watch.

“You know what I think?” Jim said, opening another beer. “I think that slut doesn’t even remember what happened that night. She changed her story so many times. I bet you, sure, she saw Mike that night, in between blackouts. But if he even touched her, I bet he was helping her out. Picking her up off the floor she’d passed out on, you know? Remember how he helped Caitlyn when she fell off the monkey bars?”

Caitlyn was the Rogowski’s daughter. A year back, she’d been on a playground next to a ball field where Mike and some friends were playing a pickup game. Caitlyn had slipped from the monkey bars and broken her arm in the fall. Mike—who’d served as a lifeguard that summer—had calmed her down and carried her to her mother’s car.

“Oh Jesus,” Jim said. “Frank, hey Frank, look.”

I looked through the glass door. Marie lay on the carpet, trapped beneath the trunk and branches of the potted palm tree. She must have pulled it over onto herself. I dropped my beer on the deck and hurried to her side, righting the tree and scooping her into my arms. She didn’t seem hurt, but her body shook against mine. She screamed over my shoulder, clutched my hair, her cheek wet with tears.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, patting her on the back. “I stopped looking. Just for a second. I’m so sorry.”

“Man, isn’t that crazy?” Jim said from the doorway. “We were just talking about Caitlyn taking that spill, and then this happens. Accidents just come in bunches, huh?”

*     *     *

Becca got home late. She dropped her purse by the couch and slumped into the cushions, one hand over her eyes. I sat down next to her and rested a hand on her knee.

“Hey,” I said. “Hey, you okay?”

She leaned over, pressed her face into my shoulder, wrapped her arms around my torso. I felt tears soak through my t-shirt, and thought: That’s okay. I can comfort both of my crying girls in one day.

“It was terrifying,” Becca said, her voice muffled in my shirt. I felt her hot breath through the cotton. “They wouldn’t stop asking me questions. They wouldn’t let me leave.”

“Christ,” I said. “Did they detain you?”

“No,” she said. “Not really. I don’t think so. It’s not like they handcuffed me. But they had us all there, they were talking to us all separately, in rooms by ourselves.”

“Wait,” I said. “Like Law and Order?”

“Kind of.” She sniffled and reached to the coffee table for a tissue. “I didn’t even think to call a lawyer. Should I call a lawyer?” She blew her nose.

“It’s all right,” I said, patting her back stiffly. “I mean, you just told them the truth, right?”

“Of course,” she said, dabbing at her eyes with the tissue and leaning back to look at me. “Of course I told them the truth.”

“Then it’s fine,” I said. I looked out at the porch again. I had no idea how this sort of police procedure worked. “They just needed to clear some things up. Questions. I don’t know. Paperwork.” My chest felt thick, my palms sweaty. I wiped them along my shorts.

“Are you okay?” Becca said. “What’s wrong with you?”

“Nothing,” I said. My eyes felt frozen in place. Through the glass door the porch blurred in my vision. I blinked and looked back at Becca. Her brow scrunched over her puffy eyes. “It’s just, I feel a little guilty,” I said.

“Guilty?” Becca said. “For what?”

I told her what happened—how I’d been drinking beers with Jim on the porch, how I hadn’t been paying attention, how Marie had pulled the palm tree down on herself.

“What?” Becca sat up straight, and her hand on my shoulder tensed. “Was she okay?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, she’s fine. I felt pretty bad about it, is all. I said I’d watch her, and I didn’t. I couldn’t even hear her through the door. She must’ve seen me out there, ignoring her while she lay trapped like that.”

“Oh, honey,” Becca said, cupping my face in her hands and turning it toward hers. “It’s okay. You can’t keep every little accident from happening. You just be the best parent you can, you know? And that’s all you can do.”

I looked at her. She cupped my face—her fingers, short and fragile, brushed the stubble on my cheek. How did someone so small, so delicate, survive? I’d never be able to keep her safe, keep Marie safe. If I was around, sure, maybe I could protect them. But what about all the times I wasn’t? You feel so helpless sometimes, as a husband, a parent.

I couldn’t believe it, but I started tearing up.

“Hey, it’s okay,” Becca said, her voice suddenly firm and level. Now my head dug into her shoulder, my sobs muffled in her shirt. Her fingertips traced the back of my neck. “I’m here,” she said.

*     *     *

I woke in the middle of the night. My windpipe constricted, hot points flared along the skin of my neck, a sharp chill surged down my throat. I sat up in bed to catch my breath. I’d been dreaming, I realized. I’d dreamed that I was Mike McCloskey, that I stood at the edge of the lake and looked out at all that dark water. I’d dreamed I walked into the water, feeling its still coldness, until it passed over my head. The blackness complete. I opened my mouth and breathed, letting the water rush into my lungs.

But here’s the thing—I didn’t die. My body wouldn’t let me. My arms pumped and my legs kicked beyond my control, and before I knew it I’d broken the surface of the water, thrown myself onto the shore. I hunched there on my hands and knees, coughing up that dark water, the sweet spring air burning the life back into me.

Sitting there in the dark, in my bedroom, I thought: What a strange, difficult way to take your own life.

I looked at Becca. She lay on her side, facing away from me, but the slow rise and fall of her body told me she slept. She looked even smaller there, her knees curled to her chest, the sheets tucked around her. She looked helpless, harmless.

I got out of bed—carefully, quietly, so as not to wake her—and put on a pair of gym shorts. I laced my running shoes. I looked for the old Maglite in the hall closet, then remembered Becca told me she’d accidentally dropped it in the lake while they dragged Mike’s body from the water.

The dirt path to the lake wound through the trees. Their dark canopies leaned overhead, a tunnel that blocked out the moon, the few stars we could see through the county’s light pollution. Twice I stumbled over fallen branches. I pulled my cell phone from my pocket and held it out, but the screen didn’t do much to illuminate the path so I put it away. The walk took me fifteen minutes.

Then the dirt became pavement, and I’d made it to the lake. The night brightened marginally, out from under the trees, the half moon hovering just over the water. A sign at the shoulder of the path told me Franklin Hollow Lake closed at sundown. In my pocket my phone vibrated. Its screen showed through the mesh of my shorts, an unnatural glow in the dark. It would, I knew, be Becca. She would have woken in the night to find my side of the bed empty. She would have searched the house, flipping lights on and off as she moved from room to room. She would be worried.

The lake lay as it had in my dream—flat, impassively dark. All about me crickets chirped from the trees, frogs groaned from the tall grass. The damp breeze carried smells of fish and mold. The waves sloshed at the shore. I looked into the lake, half expecting to see a body just beneath the surface, the skin white, almost translucent with cold. But there was no body. There was the reflection of the moon. The ripples along the water.

The trees were so dense, so black, the distance so great I couldn’t see the lights from the nearest houses. I stood in the thick night and soft moonlight and wildlife song. If I called for help, I wondered, would someone hear me?


Photo credit: Vu Bui / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND