A Murder in the Family
My aunt shot my uncle in the chest and killed him. On a warm Friday evening in Southern California in the early 1970s, with their kids in the living room watching television, my uncle tried to force his way into his estranged wife’s house. My aunt shot him as he was coming through the door. And that was it. My aunt never went to jail as the authorities accepted the killing as justifiable homicide and self-defense.
The following day my mother and her sister showed up at my grandmother’s house, where I had been spending the night. I awoke to the sound of my grandmother sobbing. I was around 8 years old and had never heard anyone cry like that, let alone her. She changed that day. She would get into dark, sullen moods for years after, and I was told to be exceptionally good because it was the anniversary of Sonny’s death.
The whole family changed. My aunt suddenly became that evil bitch who shot Sonny. Their children were ostracized from the rest of the family for continuing to love the woman who killed their father.
My understanding of that event shifted several times over the years. In the 1980s, I used to visit their oldest son, Dale, in the hospital as he was dying of what I was told was cancer. I’m pretty sure it was AIDS. He and I had some discussions about the night his father died.
“My dad was drunk. He was always beating on her. She was scared to death of him,” he said. At 34, he was the last to die in that family. His younger brother and sister each committed suicide after struggling with addictions for most of their lives.
Dale also spent a lot of his life struggling with addiction. He traveled the country after the murder, working as a carney. During one of my visits, he asked me to go to his last place of residence and pick up a large suitcase he’d left there. “When you get it, please don’t open it. Just dispose of it. Throw it out somewhere where no one can find it. Please don’t look in it.”
It was a large, heavy light green Samsonite. When I got to my car, I opened the suitcase and found an abundance of porn magazines and used syringes. I drove it out to an industrial area around downtown Los Angeles and emptied the whole thing into a large dumpster. I threw the suitcase into another dumpster. The next time I saw Dale, he asked if I had done what he asked, and I told him I did.
“Did you look inside?” he asked. I told him I didn’t, and he looked relieved. “Well, that’s it then. That’s all I had left.” He was dead about two weeks later.
Even today, I don’t know what the whole story is. The truth is buried under years of resentments, grief, and anger. The murder left more than a bloodstain. There’s a dark, fluid memory of hearing the animal-like cry of my grandmother finding out her son had been killed. That memory usually surfaces when I see news stories of parents losing their kids to violence. Or, around the last days of May, just before summer.
My book, Last Stop Slumberland, is about a young man struggling with addiction after a murder destroys his family. You write what you know.