Friday, January 9, 2009

15 minutes of fame 16 years ago

Blogspot, in their infinite wisdom, saw fit to take down the original post, so here it is again, sans songs. By the way, Billy says that for extra fun you can read the dialogue with "That's what she said" reverberating in your head after many of the lines.


People always want to hear about the time I found a dead body in the trunk of my car. Even if they barely know me, but we’re talking, one of my friends will say, “Hey, tell them about the time you found a body in your trunk.” They like to see me cringe. It’s a story that haunts me, not because I wish that I’d done anything differently, but because it put such a spotlight on me for a couple of weeks eleven years ago, and I have no desire to return to that stage.

So here it is for the last time. It wasn’t really my car anymore. I just happened to have the title in my name and a set of keys and insurance on it. Thanks to a school nurse named Lucy, who worked with a Catholic prison ministry, I had sold the car for $500 dollars to a reformed petty criminal named Wanda. She knocked on the door of my dorm apartment one rainy afternoon in November and we shared an umbrella to the parking lot, where my grandmother’s Skylark sat. Wanda was a stout, short-haired woman, full of appreciation and the right things to say, like how she would start paying me $50 every time she got a paycheck.

That was the last time I saw Wanda. She soon disappeared with all of the petty cash from the place where she worked. I soon forgot about the car, with my teaching and a two-year-old and a wife commuting to law school. One Saturday night in January, a cold night, we returned from a school basketball game to find a voice message from the East Ridge police, saying that the Skylark was sitting out at Eastgate and that we needed to move it.

I found my set of keys, and the three of us drove in the Volvo to the mall. There sat the only car in the lot, partly illuminated by the giant overhead lights—the Skylark. Pulling up next to it, I left the Volvo running and Kathleen making my wife tell her a story, as I unlocked the door and slid in onto the cold, vinyl seat. After weeks away from it, the Skylark felt worn out and unsteady. The overhead light glowed more sickly yellow than white, and when I pushed the key in, the seat belt warning buzzed like a battery operated toy left turned on out in the rain. Of course, it didn’t start. Nothing at all. So I turned around. I don’t know what I was looking for, maybe for something that would account for the smell my numbed nose was just beginning to detect. I looked in the back seat from something left behind, some groceries, maybe some rotting meat.

Outside, I said to my wife, “I’m going to look in the trunk. Something doesn’t smell right.”

She looked at me. “There’s something rotten,” I said.

“Maybe some garbage.”

“I don’t know.” As I walked to the back of the Skylark, I could hear insatiable Kathleen saying, “Now tell me another story, Mommy.”

The trunk opened easily and on top of all the junk we usually drag around—books, bills, swim toys from the summer—there was a bundle wrapped in a white, patterned quilt and the smell, even more powerful, despite the freezing air, and that smell triggered my instant, instinctive horror.

Robin says I stood at her window as she rolled it down, saying in a slow, monotone voice, “Honey, I think there’s a body in the trunk.”

“No,” she said.

“It smells like it.”

“Someone probably left a dog in there,” she said.

“It looks too big for that.”

“Well,” I said, “What do we have that I can poke it with?”

She found nothing inside the car, so she handed me key. Her trunk, too, was full, the accumulated leftovers of the weekly commute to Knoxville. The only suitable tool I could find, though, was a pink, padded clothes hanger.

A block away, cars rushed by on Brainerd Road and I could see the “Hot Doughnuts Now” sign flashing red at the Krispy Kreme. And I gave the bundle a couple of tentative pokes, one in the middle and one lower and made my diagnosis and closed the trunk.

“I think I feel a torso,” I said. “And some legs.”

“How can you tell?”

“I don’t know. It all feels hard. But I’m pretty sure.”

People always want to know the rest of what happened, but for me, the story ends there with our family at the mall and Wanda in the trunk. The rest is a blur of police who knew something was amiss when Wanda went missing, who took a cursory look in the trunk, then got out the yellow tape and made the car a crime scene, who started asking us if we knew a Wanda Counts, who took our statements separately, but all for show. They suspected what Channel 9 Crimestoppers eventually confirmed, that one of Wanda’s many boyfriends had killed her for the money.

After it was released and cleaned up, the Skylark went to a husband and wife team of recovering heroin addicts. I met the husband when I signed the car over to him, though I found out later that Lucy, the school nurse who worked with Catholic prison ministries, somehow made $500 from him on a car I gave away for free. But, when it was still mine, the Skylark had a couple of nights of fame on local television news shows as the centerpiece of an unsolved murder, and I still have the license plate to commemorate the event. That, and the image of how small a body looks when it’s wrapped in the trunk of a car.

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