A Murder Told in Reverse
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Life Was Beginning
The body landed in the gravel between the train tracks and Gilbert Snyder’s alfalfa field. Gilbert had looked up at the passing train just before the body was flung from it. He’d seen a figure in a long coat push the object — he didn’t know yet that it was a body; he thought it was a duffle bag — and disappear back into the caboose.
Gilbert braked the tractor, let it idle. Now Gilbert knelt in the alfalfa. The man’s neck was mottled. His windpipe looked crushed. He was wearing a dirty seersucker suit. His feet were bare.
Gilbert knew you’re not supposed to touch a dead person. But there was a piece of paper sticking out of the man’s pocket. He pulled it out carefully and squinted. Cecilia — 309–565–4821. He pushed it back into the pocket and wiped his hands on his own dungarees.
Daniel was nervous when he boarded the train; he imagined Cecilia greeting him with flowers. He imagined them lying together in her cottage, what she’d expect him to do. Past a certain age, there was never a good way to explain your virginity.
At Peoria, a wide-shouldered man boarded. Daniel watched him move down the aisle past several empty seats, his long coat brushing against the handles. He sat next to Daniel without asking if the seat was taken, but he smiled, seemed pleasant. His clothes smelled of something like smoked meat. Daniel couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d seen the man before. But where?
His thoughts returned to Cecilia. She likes you, he told himself. You like her. And more important: she’s made of flesh and blood, not ectoplasm.
He hoped she liked seersucker.
Cecilia, I’m down on my knees, I’m begging you please… The drunk man with the ponytail and tie-dye sang to the luscious black-haired girl.
She’d heard this a thousand times before, Daniel could tell. She rearranged some vegetables on her table and ignored the old hippie.
It was a gloomy, sparse day at the Farmers Market. Daniel was in St. Louis on assignment, covering a money-laundering scandal involving a city councilman. He’d been feeling weird since he arrived — what had Grandfather said about St. Louis? Go there? Don’t go there?
The girl with black hair looked up at Daniel and smiled. Her teeth were square and white.
Daniel tried to quit journalism school on the first day. One look at all the other students — their eager eyes, their fast fingers — and he knew he’d made a mistake. “I think maybe I’m a different kind of writer,” he told the Dean that afternoon. The Dean resembled Daniel’s grandfather. So when he asked “What kind of other writer?” and Daniel said “A poet?” and the Dean laughed, Daniel felt as though his grandfather rose from his grave to caution him against writing poems.
He walked away from Sigma Nu. Nobody would notice his absence from another keg-and-wings fundraiser. He’d found the empty farmhouse a week earlier. He’d wandered inside and felt something shimmering there like heat waves, but cold. Now he was returning with a notebook. Maybe he would write another poem that nobody would ever see.
He felt the waves again. He lay down on the floorboards. She emerged, then, from nowhere: the pale blond girl in the blue dress. “You’ve come back to me,” she said. “I’m so happy.” She was translucent.
In the summertime, Daniel worked in construction. He’d volunteered for the Restoration Guild— “You have to give colleges a reason to take you, Danny,” his mother had said — and soon enough it turned into a job. Up on that tall ladder, when no one was looking, Daniel would sometimes bring his arm to his mouth; the taste of his sweat was proof. He was alive.
He developed deep feelings for those big empty houses. He suspected that wasn’t normal. Once, he wrote a poem about a farmhouse: “Wearing Blue.”
His older sister’s slumber party: her friends in Hannah Montana pajamas; their braces with pink rubber bands; the Ouija board on the purple rug. He stood at the door, watching.
“Danny, Danny!” Suzi, his sister’s best friend, was always nice to him. She beckoned and patted next to her. “It’s called a planchette.” Suzi guided his fingertips to the plastic heart. The girls giggled. The planchette began to move. Everyone grew silent. It skated over the board. His sister wrote down the message. Meet me in the farmhouse Danny I’ll be wearing blue.
“What does that mean?” His sister squinted at him.
“I didn’t do anything.” He was shivering.
She kicked him out.
But later, Suzi told him, “I believe you.”
Whenever his grandfather visited, Daniel slept on a cot beside him. Once, the old man shouted in his sleep and woke the six year-old up. “The slaughter house! Corruption!” Daniel touched his grandfather’s shoulder. “Popup, shhh.” The old man opened his eyes, stared at Daniel for a long minute. “Do you know about St. Louis?” he asked. Daniel yawned. “Whatever you do,” his grandfather said, “always stay away from St. Louis.”
“Danny-boy doesn’t like having his socks on. Right, my little Danny-boy?” His mother rolled the socks back over the baby’s feet and up his ankles. The baby laughed, looked into her eyes, pulled the socks off again.
The grandfather, visiting from St. Louis, poured two scotches and handed a tumbler to his friend. The baby looked up at the young man with the wide shoulders and burped. The mother laughed. “He’s smelling the meat off your clothes!” she said. The man reached into the bassinet, tickled the baby’s toes.
Oh, Danny — you were so small then. I would have to wait a long, long time.
Daniela could get fired for wearing civvies in the delivery room, but that was the only way to maybe make it to her Neil Young concert; when Dr. Khan finally arrived, Daniela would dash out. This woman had been in labor for almost fifty hours, poor thing. That baby did not want to come out!
When Khan was checking the charts, Daniela squeezed the woman’s hand goodbye. The woman squeezed back so hard that Daniela shrieked. And then the birth started moving fast, with Mom squatting and Daniela kneeling to guide the baby out. When she held the newborn, she noticed a spot of blood on her new blue dress. But this kind of moment was the point of it all, wasn’t it? A new life was beginning.
About the Authors
Shelly Oria is the author of New York 1, Tel Aviv 0 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014). Most recently, she co-authored a novella, CLEAN,commissioned by WeTransfer and McSweeney’s, which received two Lovie Awards from the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences.
Nelly Reifler is the author of a collection of stories, See Through, and a novel, Elect H. Mouse State Judge. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.
“A New Life Was Beginning” is part of Dead is the New Alive, a collection of linked stories that Oria and Reifler are writing together.