They killed Barry on his lunch break. January 25, 2011.
They conked him on the head with a crowbar. A blue crowbar.
They clobbered him, if you want to know the truth. Took his money and left him in a pool of blood. Black blood.
They killed him in his thrift store. A former pharmacy in east Tennessee. About 200 yards from where Daniel Boone led people along the Wilderness Road in 1775. Exploring the American West.
They killed Barry in Tennessee, but he was buried a mile away in Kentucky. In a town that was built in a meteor crater.
Barry had thinning white hair, a neat white beard and wore glasses. Sometimes he wore
He had been married for 45 years to the same woman.
The cops thought the crime was drug related. Because the thrift store formerly had been a pharmacy.
The cops also let inmates look for the murder weapon.
The murderers hid the crowbar under the porch of a house. It was Stuart’s house.
Stuart killed Barry and stole his money. He said so.
Sandra was Stuart’s girlfriend. She stayed in the car while Stuart did the killing. She hid the crowbar under the porch after it was all over. Stuart made her do it. She said so.
Stuart was 33. He pleaded guilty to second degree murder. Was sentenced to 45 years in
prison. Has to serve 38 and cannot file for an appeal.
Girlfriend Sandra. Question mark.
It was Barry’s 66th birthday. He sold ice cream.
What is our proximity to violence?
In 2011, I was living in Tennessee and working at a small college less than two miles from the thrift store. I never met Barry, but I had driven past his store several times. It was quaint. Maybe that’s why his murder seemed so atrocious.
During the three years I lived in Appalachia, Barry was the only person I heard of who was murdered. I never personally encountered violence in Appalachia, and I never felt intimidated. The people I knew were cautious. Reserved. But not in a threatening way. Existence seemed so much more important than violence. After all, what would have been the point?
But they loved to write about violence.
The stories were like a bloody lip, accidental almost, then sore and pungent and throbbing. You could taste the tincture even if you didn’t want to.
I was in a writers group with about a dozen Appalachian writers. We met once a week and talked about writing. Sometimes we workshopped stories. Conversations were tight. The stories were like a bloody lip, accidental almost, then sore and pungent and throbbing. You could taste the tincture even if you didn’t want to.
I don’t remember the stories necessarily, but I remember the violence.
I know one woman said her character would kill with a knife but not with a gun. The woman had long gray hair, which she wore in a ponytail. Her character was a little girl who ran away from home to live in the woods. I imagined the little girl had a long gray ponytail too. She craved the intimacy of killing. The whispered violence. The eye contact. The odor of knife-punctured flesh releasing its hostile gases. A gun would have been too cosmopolitan for her. A gun would have been an insult.
Another woman in class played with violence in her stories like a hula-hoop. She sent her character to South America on a trip in the 1960s. This was a young woman engaged to a boy in medical school venturing into the South American jungle on a bus looking for something – by herself. I don’t remember what she was looking for, but I remember the warped tension on the bus. The brown eyes upon her virginal white body like temper tantrums. Her blonde hair messed by the wind and humidity like some horrible artwork. She got off the bus in the middle of nowhere with this primitive map and began walking down a dirt path and through a village. The sense of dread seemed to suck the air out of your lungs. You held your breath for the rest of the story until the woman missed the last bus of the day that would have taken her back to the city. She was alone in that place with dark coming. And you simply couldn’t hold your breath anymore. But you knew if you breathed she would die and disappear and never marry that doctor and never have two children and never tour a submarine in San Francisco bay and never wind up in your writing class.
Now I remember. She was there to see ruins.
Of course there were stories of domestic violence and beauty shops. Husbands and wives fighting over Diet Rite cola. Future terrors that women notice but men don’t, like concrete steps and plate glass windows and squealing truck tires on gravel parking lots. Hair cutting scissors are sharp, brother. And disinfected. The women in these stories lived like paupers along the banks of a creek. A creek to wash the clothes. A creek to wash the blood off their knuckles. A creek to drown a baby – if they had to.
One single, solitary story about child abuse and revenge from a writer who sat down at the beginning of every class and pulled out a notebook, a pen, and some type of medicine. One week he slammed down an unmarked pill bottle, one week a homemade inhaler, and one week he guzzled cough syrup. He missed a few weeks, but eventually returned and volunteered to read. “This is a true story,” he said. “A rough draft” about a boy who wanted to grow larger in order to conquer his father into submission with a baseball bat. This guy sat six feet from me.
And the most interesting guy, who was about 25 years old, who had stringy hair, who had a dirty face like a kid, who reminded me of Pigpen from Charlie Brown, who slumped in his chair, and who wore an alien-looking parka to every class, wrote one of the best lines I’ve ever heard. He had been in the Army. They made him go to Iraq. They made him go to Afghanistan. They kept making him go back. When they finally let him discharge he moved in with his grandmother. He was trying to forget about life. He only made it to class twice, and he didn’t participate in the discussion. The last time he showed up he had written a dozen sentences about an Iraq war veteran who lived with his grandmother and the main character either found his grandmother bludgeoned to death on the kitchen floor or he bludgeoned her to death. The writer wasn’t sure.
That was the whole story. No other details. No inciting event. No murder weapon. No explanations. Just a blob of crumpled violence stiffening like rigor mortis on the linoleum. I checked the obits for days after that. Nothing about a grandma. We never saw the writer again. When the guy read his story that day, he had kept his head down and when he was done he looked up from his paper and paused for a long time as if he couldn’t speak for fear that his voice might break. At the last he said, “I just want to visit another country without a gun.”
My own story seemed so paltry by comparison. It was about a bi-racial woman who had a new baby. She was a family court judge and her husband was dying from ALS. My classmates were writing about violence. I was writing about heartbreak.
In my story, there was no possibility for violence. No mention of violence. No hint or sniff or warrant. Adultery, perhaps. But certainly not violence. Even if my character had thought about killing her terminal husband, wouldn’t it have been merciful?
Maybe the title of this essay should have been “Small Mercies.”
Because what do we truly know about mercy?
Because what if our violences are only a fraction of what they could be?
Maybe the violence in my story was muted. After all, the judge had lice. Her husband had ALS. The baby bumped its head. They were all caterwauling toward a devastatingly inevitable conclusion. And maybe so was I. Maybe my story was the most vile. Maybe the consequences of a dozen small evils are far more heinous than a single gross act of violence in and of itself.
At some point aren’t we all violent? The perpetrator Stuart, or the girlfriend accomplice Sandra, or the victim Barry? Which is to say that every one of us knows our proximity to violence. Perhaps the real question is: what holds us at bay?
Violence must be like oxygen. Our bodies crave it. We breathe it in. It fuels our blood.
Stuart and Barry knew each other and lived a few miles apart. By some accounts, the two men were friends. Stuart stopped by the thrift store on several previous occasions to visit with Barry. But something changed on January 25, 2011, and Stuart caught a whiff of violence.
Stuart never said why he killed Barry. Maybe it was a dispute over a boat motor.
They killed Barry for coffee. For water balloons.
They killed Barry for a kite. For a postcard of Tahiti.
They killed Barry for magic beans. Which is to say they killed Barry for no good reason at all.
Gabriel Morley is a writer, a librarian, and a hippy. He is also a high school dropout who spent 20 years in college before earning a doctorate in adult education from The University of Southern Mississippi. He has published a few stories (drafthorse: lit journal of work and no work), and won a few contests (Emma Bell Miles Prize for Essay). He wrote a YA novel once (Blame it on the Black Star). He is currently working on an adult fairy tale about a girl who survived the earthquake in Nepal.