I open this particular story as a scene from a imaginary film, but the story is true.
An elderly woman wakes up with a start, shocked by some distant noise. It is about seven or eight in the morning, She gets out bed slowly, and makes her way down the steps and into her kitchen. She makes her breakfast and all the while she is drinking her coffee, she has the most peculiar feeling. At that moment, she notices from the corner of her eye, a strange shape moving past the picture window in the living room. As she creeps around the corner, she can clearly make out a tall man peering into her home. Bravely, she unlocks the door, leaving the chain on, and asks the man what he wants.
It is a policeman and he is trying to speak to her but suddenly, she realizes that she has forgotten to attach her hearing aid. A bit later, the officer is telling her very slowly and very gently, “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, lady, but a car has run into the side of your house.”
She notices , over his shoulder, a gathering of curious neighbors in her front yard, a pair of muddy tears across the grass and a greenish Impala improbably parked in her lawn. Somebody is taking photographs. Then, the policeman takes her elbow and says,”And, there’s a dead man in the car.”
All this occurred in the summer when I turned nine. My subdivision in St. Louis county was an extremely quiet place to live normally. Summers in humid August and it felt like Time itself was slowly rolling to a stop. Tract homes of the same design and families with striking similarities. At that time, crime, especially murder was something that belonged in the city. There was, of course, the occasional act of vandalism- usually as a kind of revenge to a crank. But murder? It had seemed unthinkable. This wasn’t the Bronx, for goodness sakes. And most surprising of all was the confessed murderer was none other than my own neighbor, Mr. Staten.
George Staten was a heavy white haired (a crew-cut) Texan. He was so shy that, to us children, he often seemed gruff. On the other hand, his exhuberant wife, Fay, with her hair dyed jet black and spun like confection, was like a sister to my mother and George was a good friend to my dad.
They would spend hours taking apart things and putting things back together, from lawn-mowers to carburators, in some kind of hope of improvement. Like my father, George had traveled up from the backwaters -of Texas, in his case- in search of work in the city. After the Korean War, as the Cold War really took off and the airline industry developed, McDonnell Douglas, , created a kind of hiring vacuum, sucking up all the undereducated veterans returning home.
The story behind this peculiar event was fairly straightforward. Fay, unable to sleep, was watching TV late into the night. She heard a strange noise and when she went to the window to look, she was surprised to find a unidentified car parked in their own driveway. Still more worrying, in the darkness, she saw two strangers moving about in the shadows.
She woke her husband and told him this news. He, being a Texan, unlocked the firearm cabinet and withdrew a rifle. As he left the house, the two men tried to flee, one ran off down the street and the other (presumably the owner of the car) hopped into the driver’s seat and pulled back out of the driveway. What happened next can only be verified by the witness and murderer. George had his rifle up on his shoulder targeting the driver, as a threat only. However, at that moment, the driver gambled that it was a bluff and aimed his revolver at Mr. Staten. In self-defense, he fired his rifle, the bullet entering the right temple and exiting under his arm. The car rolled down the street lazily, flopping over the curb and bumped into the side of a home at the end of the street.
There was only one problem. When the police later searched the car, they found no weapon at all. It was theorized that the driver had pointed his finger at my neighbor, attempting to frighten him. Obviously, he had never met a man from Texas.
When the police located the dead man’s partner, they learned that the pair had spent most of the night breaking into homes and cars and removing as much as possible. When Fay had looked out the window, they had just begun loading it into the back seat of their Impala. Police also told our families that this pair were quite familiar to the authorities, having committed similar crimes in other neighborhoods.
So began the worst year of living for the Statens. Law suits were immediately filed by grieving relatives of the victim. George lost so much time from his work that nearly lost his job and his house. He certainly lost his privacy with news crews all over the neighborhood. Worst of all, the victim had had a lot of friends whose characters were apparently no better. And for many months, they would take turn throwing bottles through the Staten’s front windows.
I recall one day, as summer was coming to a close, Fay had just left our home and her son dashed back to our home and told us to come quick. We all darted outside and saw poor Fay rolling about on the ground, crying and senselessly clutching at herself. I stood there with my eyes as wide as possible, trying to take in every detail. So, I noted to myself, this is what a nervous breakdown actually looks like.
There was one thing I could never understand about the shooting. How was it possible that I could have slept through this high drama? After all, murder, as regrettable as it was, was something that people liked discussing and watching on TV and in the cinema. Almost every episode of McMillan and Wife had at least one murder. And this was an event- my own event- that I could have shared in great detail with my friends when school opened. And the murderer was my own next door neighborhood. Somebody I knew.
And yet, somehow, it all happened while I was calmly sleeping, dreaming my happy dreams of swimming and high diving, of GI Joes, and Gilligan's Island, and daring exploits on bicycles. We later figured the sound of the rifle was drowned out by our air conditioner running at full blast. August nights are usually quite unbearable in St. Louis so in the end, I decided the trade-off was probably worth it.