Dec/Jan 2011

Crime of the Heart

A violent episode witnessed in childhood evokes powerful mysteries about the nature of love and death.

Michael Greenberg


Desire is a question to which there is no answer, yet much of the time it's the only question that matters. "Love . . . makes one little room, an everywhere," wrote John Donne. Death, in its not-so-different way, does the same. The place of one's final heartbeat is immense, or so it seemed to me at age eight when I inadvertently became sole witness to a murder.

I was throwing a rubber ball against a cracked beach wall on my dead-end street in Rockaway, an improbable spit of coastland on the eastern edge of New York City. It was November 1961, and Rockaway was still in a state of ruin two months after a drenching hurricane. A couple drove up in a nail-polish-red Impala hardtop. They parked facing the ocean, about twenty feet from me, and at first seemed like any number of couples who made the short trip across the inlet from Flatbush to smoke reefer and neck in my relatively deserted part of town. I kept glancing over at them, hoping to learn something about the physical mechanics of love, but all they did was talk in what seemed to me a dull, unhappy manner, the woman resting her head against the passenger window as if she had given up or was waiting for something unpleasant to pass.

After a while, in an awkward maneuver, the man turned around so he was facing the rear of the car, reaching down over the seat as if to retrieve something from the floor. My ball skittered away, and as I ran after it I heard the light clean crack of the .22 rifle. The report was so crisp and innocuous that no one thought to come out to see what had happened. He had shot the woman through the left temple. Unhurriedly, without looking at her, he set the butt of the rifle against the windshield, leaned back as far as he could in order to place the bore at the center of his forehead like a fitted pipe, and pulled the trigger. His composure amazed me. He was determined to get it right. Though it excused nothing, it made all the difference that he had taken from himself what he took from her, that he had taken everything.

I've no trouble reliving the queasy thrill I felt when I approached the Impala, taking my time, trying to camouflage from myself my unpardonable eagerness to see them, to see death. The car was locked. I was inches from them, but that thin barrier of glass made the distance between us seem enormous. It was like looking at a diorama of ruined love—engrossing, detailed, and oddly false. I began to cry, briefly, not for them, but for the fact that actual death seemed less real than my nightmares about dying. I thought I should be crying, that the importance of what had happened required tears. But what impressed me most was how inconsequential they appeared, specimens under glass: He slender and sharp-featured, in a white flannel shirt and with a strange look of contentment around his mouth; she in brown curls, electric-blue pants, and pointy glasses that sat crookedly on her face like she had been sucker-punched. There was surprisingly little blood, maybe because the .22 bullet was so narrow. They had more in common with the fish that had been tossed ashore during the hurricane than the animated human beings they had been just a minute or two ago.

I don't know how long I peered into the car. I was certainly in no hurry to alert my parents and have the workaday world rush in with its inevitable, hectic procedures. Whatever emotions I felt had massed into a nullifying, unidentifiable knot. I relished the privacy, the heightened, almost religious aura that surrounded us, the holiness of death as well as its desecration.

Finally I did go home, after Mr. Denmark, the radio comedian who lived on my street, came upon us while walking his dog. His agitation shook me. He took me to my parents, who treated me with uncharacteristic solicitude, as if I too had been shot and needed to be tended to and protected. This soon turned to exasperation (I refused to describe what I had seen), followed by skepticism, until at last I was ignored.

In the evening, a homicide detective interviewed me. He was so bland and uninterested in what I had to say that I told him everything. He wrote down every word, dutiful and bored—there was no arrest to be made, no mystery to solve. He seemed to know a great deal about the couple. What interested him was why I had hung around so long. "Why didn't you tell anyone?" he asked. "I don't know." He touched me lightly on the shoulder, apparently understanding why better than I did.

News trickled in from across the inlet where the couple had lived. The "boy," as he was referred to, was eighteen. He had worked for his father—the owner of a boat-repair yard in Marine Park—sanding paint off the hulls of wooden pleasure vessels and fishing rigs. The girl, also eighteen, was a freshman at Brooklyn College. She made jewelry and sang backup in a girl group inspired by the Shirelles. The group played dances and weddings and sweet-sixteen parties, covering the popular songs, occasionally slipping into their set a song the murdered girl had written. In August, she had rejected his marriage proposal.

I relished these facts and any others I could gather. For weeks, I tried to imagine what he had said to persuade her to go with him on that drive, the pity he had evoked. Or had he deceived her into believing he was over her? Today, crimes of the heart are almost as comprehensible to me as ones triggered by hunger. But at the time what I had seen was a complete mystery. I envied what they had lived through; they knew what I could not know. In order to sleep at night I would have to remind myself of the obvious: They hadn't "lived through" it.

Montaigne remarked, after an almost fatal accident with a horse, that you do not encounter death, because you are gone before it gets there. It's not an event in life. You slip away. But an execution is different. There's no bush to curl up in and wait for the end, no morphine or IV bags, no life as an invalid to pass through, no suffering to prepare you for the end and to make others, with no lack of affection, wish it for you.

In 1870, Turgenev wrote of an execution by guillotine he was invited to witness in Paris. The condemned man was a mass murderer. Walking to the jail with a group of friends, Turgenev was mistaken for the executioner, with whom he shared a physical resemblance. I wonder whether he was referring to himself when he described the executioner as looking "like a diplomat or a Protestant pastor." As an honored guest, he felt implicated enough in the execution to see himself as related to the master of the guillotine. With the other VIPs, he waited comfortably for the event in the warden's apartment. They conversed about the murderer and the ethics of capital punishment, "but all this was so lifeless, so dull, so platitudinous, that even those who spoke did not feel like carrying on." Yet to talk of something else was impossible "out of respect for death alone, for the man who was doomed to die." Turgenev struggled to hold himself apart from the others yet stood close enough to the condemned boy almost to catch the neck of his shirt after it had been cut away from him minutes before he was to be beheaded.

Like Turgenev, I felt I had no right to see what I saw. "No psychological or philosophical considerations excused me." I hadn't chosen to be there, as he had, I hadn't attended this murder the way one attends the theater, but I was a spectator just the same. I've retained it the way one might retain an image from a movie, expanding the memory, exploiting it, entertaining myself with the emotions it continues to provoke.

Over the years, in my mind, the boy in the Impala has been both a psychopath and a man with special knowledge of the world. Maybe he believed he was binding them more durably than any marriage could have. I thought I too could have loved the girl. Sometimes her face came before me. It ceased being a recollection and became a permanent piece of furniture in my mind. She presses herself against the car window. "Why are you standing there with a rubber ball in your hand?"

Advertisement