GRANDMA ROSE’S younger brother Leonard was murdered thirty-seven years before I was born. As a child I was often told I resembled Leonard, which was meant to explain why Grandma didn’t take much interest in me. My father’s mother was a stern, often judgmental woman, and I was scared of her. Proudly self-sufficient, she worked from sunrise to sunset, perpetually cleaning, cooking, and washing clothes, and her large hands smelled strongly of bleach. She didn’t give hugs or believe in celebrating birthdays or Christmas. Once, she used her cane to knock a stray cat from the porch. I tried to steer clear of her, which wasn’t easy, since she and my grandfather lived right next to us.
The story of the murder was told over and over in our family. I would eavesdrop from the doorway while my father and grandfather drank black coffee at the kitchen table and talked about how the police never had charged anyone, probably because it was their own posse that had killed him. Grandpa Fred might end the conversation with a shrug, or he might say, “Sons of bitches killed a boy, is what they did. ‘Lawful’ my ass. A sheriff and his little helpers playing like they was G-men.” I didn’t understand what it all meant. I knew the man they were talking about was related to me and that somehow, confusingly, embarrassingly, this relative of mine had been killed by the police, an idea that didn’t fit with the insistent talk of murder.
The story was so ubiquitous at family gatherings that I often thought of it as a kind of fairy tale. Whenever elderly relatives visited from Terre Haute, Indiana, the topic would come up, and the old hurt and anger would flare. There was talk about the stupidity of law enforcement, and one aunt felt the county should have been held liable. But no one ever spoke of this around Grandma Rose. That was the rule. We all knew not to mention Leonard’s murder when she was in earshot.
When my grandmother was still a teenager, her father had died in a car accident, and after that, her mother had suffered from depression, so Grandma Rose had taken on the job of caring for her eight younger siblings. Leonard was two years her junior and impulsive, often getting into fights with his employers about overtime. He believed that, as the eldest male, it was up to him to provide for the family, and that’s what drove him to devise a silly, dangerous scheme, the full details of which I know now, though I had only sketchy knowledge of them as a boy: At the age of seventeen Leonard and a few unnamed others left a note on the porch of a former county commissioner named Thomas Modesitt, saying his home would be blown up within twenty-four hours unless five hundred dollars was left in a culvert south of Cory, Indiana, at 9 PM that Tuesday night. Modesitt went to Sheriff Roy Tipton, who instructed him to wrap a stack of blank paper in a package and deposit this decoy in the culvert. Sheriff Tipton assured Modesitt a posse would be formed to catch those responsible.
The fragmentary narratives about the murder of my long-dead great-uncle seemed to me like the plot of a movie. Sometimes, when my brothers and sisters and I were out playing in the pastures, we’d reenact the story we’d heard. My two older brothers would play the posse leaders, while my sisters would argue over who got to play a young Grandma Rose. Whoever portrayed Grandma made sure she never cried. I was always Leonard getting gunned down, clutching my chest and falling into a bramble of cocklebur and morning glory. As we got older and had more chores and fewer visits from our Terre Haute relatives, we lost interest in acting out the tragedy. Still, I’d often find myself thinking about Leonard: a thin figure falling first to his knees, then crumpling into a heap.
MY FAMILY moved often around Wabash County, Indiana, always renting farms and trying to save for a down payment on some land of our own. When my grandparents were in their late seventies, they began living in a mobile home that we dragged from place to place. In the spring of 1984 Grandpa Fred died, and Grandma Rose was becoming more and more hobbled by age, her mobility hampered, her mind slipping. But she stayed in the mobile home alone and wouldn’t hear of living with us in the house. My siblings and I were charged with making sure she was doing all right by herself. My sisters brought her meals, and my brothers and I confirmed that the heat was on and that she could operate the television and the new cordless phone if she wanted to make a call. (She’d often insist it wouldn’t work because it wasn’t connected to anything.) I was uncomfortable being alone with Grandma Rose, because she was always looking me over from head to toe with an expression of disapproval, as if inspecting me. She had eyes so dark they appeared black, and her stare was so unblinking I sometimes thought she had died. Even though she intimidated me, I felt a vague longing to be around her. Maybe it had to do with the notion that I looked like her dead brother.
One day, not long after Grandpa Fred had died, Dad told me to go help Grandma call Terre Haute. I stood nervously in the trailer and picked up the cordless phone. “See, Grandma, it works,” I said, offering it to her. “You can hear the dial tone.” She shrugged, shuffled away from me on her walker, and took a seat in the kitchenette. She sat upright — no hunched back for her — and stared straight ahead. Pale-yellow wallpaper covered the walls, and the cheerful white daisies on the curtains seemed out of place. Bright sunlight blazed through the window onto Grandma’s head, where her wavy gray hair was held up with combs. Her lips were pallid, and there was just the slightest hint of pink in her cheeks. She had trouble controlling her bladder by then and was having accidents, but she wouldn’t acknowledge it. She’d tuck used adult diapers under the sink or the bed, sometimes even stuffing them in the heating ducts after using a butter knife to unscrew the vents. She tried to cover the urine odor with baby powder, which only made the hot, pungent mobile home smell like an infant’s nursery.
“Sit down,” she commanded.
I didn’t move. I wanted to get out of there as quickly as I could.
“I said sit down.” Those dark eyes trained on me like little round magnets.
I pulled out a flimsy kitchen chair. The back was wobbly and the vinyl cracked, tufts of white sticking out like chin hairs. I longed to be outside or back at the house — anywhere but here with Grandma Rose. One time she’d laughed when I’d fallen in pig manure. Yet somehow I craved her approval.
I couldn’t sit still, my legs bouncing with nervous energy. Grandma Rose placed her hands on the table, the purplish veins like electrical wires under the wrinkled skin. I’d never seen her in anything but a faded floral housedress. She looked at me with an expression that bordered on amusement, which unsettled me even more than her usually severe glare. “What’s your big hurry?” she asked.
“I have to do my homework, Grandma,” I told her. Acorns fell on the aluminum roof with a sound like someone dropping rocks into a metal pail.
“Is that right?” she said. “I suppose you have a favorite subject, then?” She actually offered me a smile.
Thrilled to have her ask about my interests, I sat up straight and tried to make eye contact, though her intense gaze wilted me. “I like English,” I told her. We were reading the novel Ordinary People in class. “It’s about this family that’s messed up, and we’re acting out some of the scenes.” I swallowed and tried to keep myself from talking too much. I was afraid of gushing, which I assumed she would interpret as a sign of weakness.
“I see,” she said. We sat there for a while, the sunshine slanting through the window, fading when clouds passed over, then coming back again. I picked at a raw cuticle. The smell of urine in the warm space was embarrassing.
“You can go now,” she said. She seemed to be smiling again as she stood up and walked slowly past me. “I’ll see you another time, Leonard.”
It was strangely exciting to be called by her dead brother’s name, as if we were acting in one of our impromptu plays, with Grandma Rose playing the part of herself.
EVERY FEW DAYS after that, I’d be summoned to the mobile home: to replace a light bulb, dust the top of a high shelf, tape the handle on Grandma’s flyswatter, or remove a stack of newspapers she’d suddenly decided needed to go. She didn’t call me by her brother’s name again, but her manner continued to be less harsh. At least twice she gave me an oatmeal cookie wrapped in plastic. (She bought them when my mother took her shopping twice a month at Clark’s Grocery.) One time she made me a cup of black coffee and told me to sit down and tell her more about that book I was reading.
For the next twenty minutes I tried to explain the plot of Ordinary People: How one brother had drowned and the other had survived. How the one that had died was thought to be the stronger one, and the weaker one felt guilty for living. How the mother was so sad she hated her living son. At that, Grandma Rose stood up and disappeared into the back of the trailer. I sat at the kitchen table, wondering if I’d somehow upset her. I got up and walked a few steps toward her bedroom, then went back to the table and sat down. The trailer smelled sour. It seemed wrong to leave, and I was worried that, if I did, she wouldn’t want me to come over again. The wind outside made the mobile home shimmy, and I thought of the scene in the movie version of Ordinary People when the brothers, Conrad and Buck, fall in the water, the storm raging, and Buck gives up and drowns. I put the cordless phone on the charger and slipped out the door.
A few months later Grandma Rose decided she could no longer care for herself and wanted to move to a nursing home. Her mind had continued to go astray, and sometimes she’d think she was back in Cory, Indiana, where she’d grown up, and she’d talk about the garden or a bus she needed to catch. She often fell in the bathroom or tripped on the step that led down from the kitchenette into the living room. Bruises covered her forearms. Finally one day in the summer of 1985, a year before I’d graduate from high school, Dad helped her load a couple of suitcases into his truck. For once she allowed us each to hug her goodbye. Then she and Dad drove away.
IN THE FALL of my freshman year in college I visited Grandma Rose at the Willow Springs Nursing Home in Wabash, Indiana. We sat at a picnic table beside a man-made pond with one white duck in it. I remained afraid I’d say something stupid in her presence or behave in a less-than-manly way. “Do you like it here, Grandma?” I asked.
“Why’d they do it?”
At first I thought she was asking why she’d been moved to the nursing home. “But you wanted to come here,” I said. She reached across the table and put her hand over mine. Her touch was shocking, like something sacred and forbidden at the same time. Except for the goodbye hug a year earlier, the only time I’d touched her was when I was very small: a quick peck on her cheek, before I knew better. Her hand was heavy and cool.
“Why’d they do it to you, Leonard?” she asked. Tears welled up in her red eyes. This time her confusion didn’t feel playful. I felt as if I’d cornered some unpredictable creature. I didn’t know whether she’d snap at me or start bawling.
“It’s OK, Rose,” I said. Leaving out the word Grandma felt wrong. “You did all you could. I’m fine now. See?” I held up my hands and smiled.
The lone duck took a short flight, skimming the green water before settling on the other side of the pond. Grandma Rose and I sat there together until the sun started to set. At one point she fell asleep, woke up and eyed me, then drifted into slumber again. At dusk an attendant came out of the building and offered to take her back inside. I said OK, then watched him wheel Grandma down the sidewalk to the front door. I didn’t get up to go right away. It was dark when I finally walked to my car. The lone duck trilled. I tried again to picture Rose’s dead brother, my great-uncle. I imagined a teenager in a light-blue chambray shirt and dark jeans, his face pale. I drove back to college in Muncie, Indiana, thinking of that old family story, the bitter talk of murder and the law. I decided that, when I next came to see Grandma Rose, I’d swallow my fear and ask directly about Leonard and maybe talk with her about the tragedy that seemed to have shaped her entire adult life.
I SAW Grandma Rose only once more before she died. I was home for the summer, working in a ceiling-tile factory with my father. After work one day I drove to the nursing home by myself and went to her room. She was lying in bed with her eyes closed, the radio playing quietly, tuned to a classic-rock station I knew she’d hate. I adjusted the dial until I found some news out of Fort Wayne. Then I sat down next to the bed and took Grandma Rose’s hand. She opened her eyes. I was prepared for her to think I was Leonard, back from the grave. I actually wanted her to call me “Leonard” and ask what it was like for me in the afterlife, so that I could comfort her. I also hoped she might tell me what had really happened. But it wasn’t going to be like that. Grandma Rose appeared too weak to speak. She just opened and closed her eyes over and over, as if trying to accustom them to the light. After an hour or so I got up to leave. At the door I stopped and looked back. Grandma Rose’s eyes were open, and she seemed to recognize me, but as whom? Then she was asleep again, and the nurse told me I’d have to come back the next day; visiting hours were over.
At her funeral two months later there was no mention of Leonard’s murder. The pastor focused on Rose’s life as a farm wife and mother to my dad and his brother and sister. Later, at a distant relative’s house, I finally saw a picture of Leonard Courtney, my grandma Rose’s brother. I thought I looked nothing like him. I listened to the story of the murder again. There were no hushed tones now that Grandma Rose was gone. The anger was clear and audible. I was starting to understand that Leonard was a real person, not a role to be playacted in the pasture with my siblings. I tried to match my relatives’ expressions of resentment, but still I couldn’t feel their wrath.
AFTER I moved away from Indiana in the late 1990s, I wanted to learn more about Leonard’s death. I used the Internet and library databases to search for newspaper articles, but I didn’t find much. I called my folks, and my mother promised to mention my interest to Dad. A few months later an envelope arrived with no note, just copies of the Terre Haute Star. One was from Wednesday, July 29, 1931. In huge block letters the front-page headline read, “Posse Kills Extortionist.” Right under the story about my great-uncle was one on how gang lord Al Capone was changing his plea. Other articles described gangsters spraying the streets of New York City with machine-gun bullets, fugitives robbing banks, and raids on the mob’s illegal beer operations throughout the country. The story about Leonard was peppered with the same fear of organized crime that pervaded the rest. One paragraph in the July 31 edition of the Star summed up how Leonard had died:
The Sheriff and seven deputies were hidden about the spot when the young Leonard, who had been let out of a passing car, picked up the decoy package and fled. He made a dash for the cornfield. The posse allowed him to get about 40 feet away, shouting at him constantly to halt. Finally, one shot was fired from a sawed-off shotgun. One of the pellets took effect in the base of the brain, killing him instantly. The sheriff had gone prepared to meet a bandit gang armed with machine guns and had made his plans and arranged his ambuscade accordingly.
I put the newspaper articles away for more than a decade, but I carried with me a burgeoning sense of injustice and the memory of this final line of reporting: “Coroner Veach returned a verdict that young Leonard Courtney was shot and killed while committing a crime.” As if that made it all right.
In the autumn of 2012, when Grandma Rose had been gone twenty-five years and Great-uncle Leonard more than eighty, I wrote my father and asked for any additional information he had. Weeks went by, then months. My mother passed away, and Dad was consumed with trying to manage his new life without her. We talked on the phone a few times, and once he brought up my curiosity about the murder. “You know, your grandmother never got over that,” he said. “She hated the law for it; hated people in general, too.”
I tried to talk to him about the theory of generational trauma, how the ripple of violence spreads down through the family and touches subsequent generations, but it sounded as if I were trying to impress him. He mumbled, “Uh-huh,” a few times. “I don’t know about that,” he finally said, “but I’ve got the boy’s bankbook if you want it. He had it on him when they killed him. Five dollars in the bank. Little spot of blood on it.” His voice cracked. We struggled to say we loved each other, then hung up.
That week a small manila envelope arrived in the mail addressed in my father’s shaky handwriting. I opened it at the end of the driveway, and a book the size of a business card fell into my palm. It was burnt orange and printed with “The Citizens Bank, Cory, Indiana.” I turned it over and found the dark-brown droplet on the back. On the first page was penciled, “Leonard Courtney,” in gray writing over a thin maroon line. There was indeed one five-dollar deposit. The rest of the yellowed pages were blank.
As I walked back toward the house, I could finally see Leonard Courtney as a real person, a young boy who’d spilled red blood on the dusty road beside a green cornfield. I didn’t have any sense of closure. I simply felt anger, even hatred, toward the strangers who had killed my great-uncle. Grown men pretending to be big-city law officers, they’d planted a fake package of money in a culvert and lain in wait for a seventeen-year-old boy who was trying to help feed his family. And then they’d shot him in the back.