My mother was visiting the night the murder happened on Elliot Street in our little town of Brattleboro, Vermont. It happened a block away from where she was sleeping with her eyeshades on and her travel alarm clock next to her. There were evidence tents set up the next morning. “Just like in a Robert Parker novel,” my mother said when I walked her to her car. Beneath one tent was a wallet and a baseball cap. “What happened?” I asked a girl in cowboy boots after my mother had left. “A guy got murdered,” the girl said. “Stabbed.” In the bank a man drew a line across his throat. “Right in front of the building I own,” the man said.
Later my husband, a junky for violent crime news and COPS, sank into his favorite gold chair and told me the murderer was 41. It happened at 3 in the morning. “You know the old saying,” my husband said. “Nothing good happens after midnight.” Though it wasn’t so long ago we’d had plenty of good times after midnight on Elliot. “He was looking to score some coke,” my husband said. “And some kid took his money. The guy trying to score the coke got mad, so the kid called his older brother. The older brother came out with his dog, and the guy trying to score the coke stabbed him. Twice. Killed him. The kid was 26.”
In the past few years Elliot Street has become a hang-out spot for boys in non-sportsman like sneakers, denim crotches to their knees, baseball caps, cigarettes and very loud mouths. The girls they hang with are the kind of girls I secretly envied in high school with blood red mouths, their own cigarettes, tattoos, dyed hair, very tight jeans and big boobs they aren’t afraid to show off. Grown-ups hang out there, too, and they look like older versions of the kids. They stand around the dry cleaner and the stoop of the old diner and the door of the Indian restaurant. They just about own the street, they kiss and yell to one another and generally loaf around as though they don’t need jobs or have homes or anywhere to be. The artists and business people passing by on their way to the parking garage pretend they don’t see them. The day after the murder these people who own Elliot put flowers on the sidewalk with candles and beers and held vigil on the closed-diner stoop with a big cardboard sign that said, Violence is not the answer. I saw one of the girls crying. But then a few days later a homeless guy drank the beers and the people from the stoop beat him up so bad the cops had to be called. I guess sometimes violence is the answer, it all depends on the situation.
I am supposed to be bothered by all this. My husband says they are scaring people, and no one wants to walk down that street anymore. The murder sort of proves him right, and I really try to screw up my scare-meter, but I don’t have a good one. I was always the kid on the train to New York who looked the crazy guy right in the eye because I wanted to see what was behind the one-way conversation he was having with himself. I wanted straight away, when I was old enough to know about the map of the world, to go somewhere far off where people didn’t look like me and there were shootings in the streets. I wished for more movies and books about homeless kids in Times Square. I watched The Warriors about a million times and The Outsiders two million times and I sought out the boys in my high school whose parents were divorced and who congregated in an old barn listening to Pink Floyd, dropping acid and growing their hair. They didn’t have to be home at a particular hour and if they owned cars, they were old and made noises like guns going off. These boys were scarce. I grew up in a town where if you weren’t a wasp with a yacht club membership, you either needed some kind of passport or the backing of a really nice church group to get in. Having a black friend was retro and daring.
Sometimes we go back to that town to visit my mother, and I feel comfortable and safe. You can walk along the ocean and see herons on the velvety marshes. The houses are restored and renovated with manicured hedges and very green lawns. I feel the muse there, but when I sit down to write, it is always about the one Italian girl in my sister’s grade or the Puerto Ricans who moved in during the 70s and lived by the tracks. My husband and I lie awake talking about moving there someday, and I forget the immense restlessness that rises up in me when I am too safe. I forget that all my life I have tried not to be safe, flying off to the civil war in Sri Lanka, to South Africa just after apartheid, to Zimbabwe during the reign of Mugabe, throwing everything away to jump in my car and move to the upper Mississippi Hill Country where I could be the only white girl in the juke joint and drink moonshine from a headless doll.
When we drive back into Vermont after visiting my mother, I quit feeling so anesthetized, and I return to my own skin. As soon as we pull into the Price Chopper to get something to eat, I can smell need, can feel the stakes are higher here, and I am happy to be home.
You probably think Vermont is very safe, white, crimeless and Andy Griffith-like. If you’ve never been here and have only read about Brattleboro’s impetus to impeach Bush, the three colleges, the prep schools, the family farms and the painting studios in the old cotton mill, you might believe Brattleboro was a kind of artist enclave with transplants from NYC who shop at the Co-op and order hemp clothes online. And it is. But if you have an eye for felony and transgression, like me, you would also know which houses are subsidized by the housing trust, that squatters have rights to the decrepit factory on Arch, the homeless drink by the railroad tracks with one-eyed cats, kids up from Springfield sell drugs in the bar bathrooms on Saturday night, there’s a heroin problem on Flat Street, and the yellers on Elliot (although since the murder, the police are cracking down) have tattoos on their necks and carry knives. It makes me feel more alive. I like the proximity of crime.
All this probably makes me sound risky, daring, but the really risky people, the people in my imagination like the boy on the stoop whose brother was killed, know that I am a fake, a fraud. He knows I don’t anymore want to change places with him than I want to feel what it is like to be starving in Africa with AIDS. The truth is, I come from a little bit of money, have never been a victim of a crime, am over-educated and don’t know what it is like to live hand to mouth, so I can walk down the street with my mother and be curious about what happened the night before, the lone baseball cap, the blood on the street. I can sit on my husband’s lap that night and peer over his shoulder at the picture in the newspaper of the guy in leg shackles who stabbed a 26-year old, and who’s a year older than me. He had nowhere acceptable to put his rage, so forever his life has changed. “He might not even remember what he did,” my husband said. And because I can’t know what it is like to be that man, I have the strange urge to reach out and touch him, just to know if his skin, being that he is human, feels the same as mine.