On the soft August night the Brown family is murdered in their south Texas home, I am granted access to the scene because the police photographer is drunk in the next town. I step past the bloodstained flowers of their entry hall to the unholy scene and the world goes mad.
William steers me through the gore with one hand grasping my elbow, the other clutching his steno notebook. “Get that, James. And that.”
Twice I plunge out the door to vomit. Twice my father calls me back. “They have to have shots of the bodies, son. Just a little more. We need some of the blood on the walls, too.”
I am choking as I move around the body of Mrs. Brown, my tears making it difficult to tell if my Nikon is in focus. I try not to look at her glassy eyes or grimace of horror. Her soft blond hair is matted with blood; it is the color of my mother’s.
“What in the name of God is that kid doing in here?”
“He’s shooting for us, Chief. Johnnie’s drunk in Hallettsville and we needed some shots before anything gets messed up. His dad said he could.”
“You couldn’t pick up a camera? Get him outa here before I kill every one of you. And, Benjamin, I better not see any body shots in that thing you call a newspaper.”
Three-year-old Melissa has survived. Outside, they have a blanket wrapped around her pink pajamas. A woman EMT is stroking her hair, calling, “Where the hell is Mike? We’ve got to get her out of here.”
Melissa clutches a stuffed rabbit. On one of its floppy ears is a red smear.
The ambulance finally leaves, easing through the crowd of stunned police, its red lights flashing in silence across the lawn, packed with the white faces of the gathering crowd.
My father helps me into his Chevy and runs to the driver’s side. “When we get home, I’ll need you to develop these. Can you manage that? Are you okay, son?”
I snuffle and wipe my nose with the back of my hand. I cannot rub the images of death from my eyes.
“James, you hear?”
I make a noise.
“You okay, son?”
I make another noise.
Tomorrow, I will turn fourteen.
We came to Texas the year before in the summer of 1980, swept along by my father’s dreams like an entourage for a lessor king. He made it happen quickly, the transition from rabid investigative reporter for a Washington underground to country editor in the great dusty south of Texas. That’s likely how he got it past Sheila, who was slower than William to envision the leap from daydream to grand success.
As for the rest of us, the five offspring of William and Sheila Benjamin, proud new owners of the New Berlin Chronicle, we had no choice in the matter. We were destined to become slaves of our father’s splendid plans, children of a dream. Those of us who did eventually get away left like wounded soldiers limping home from war.
That’s the thing about obsession. If it’s yours, you don’t have any intention of surviving it. If someone else thrusts it into your life like one end of a log to carry, surviving it becomes everything.
In the early days, I suppose my father’s madness was just a young punk, jabbing at shadows, pumping iron, waiting on a ticket to the fight of his life.
But the signs were there, long before the Brown family murders, flashing warning messages we all ignored until we couldn’t.
For me, the reality of my father began to come into view in the distance, like a vague figure in the fog moving ever closer, ever more clear as the mists of my denial piece by piece were wiped away.
The day he threw the Church of Christ preacher out of the newspaper office comes to mind. Until then, a couple months into his country editor career, I would have called him passionate, as Sheila chose to describe him in the early days.
“You can take your petition and stick it up your thumpin’ ass,” he yelled up Main Street before slamming the old depot door hard enough to rattle the leaded glass.
“Who the devil do they think they are,” he muttered. “Telling me to tone it down.”
He must have realized about then that he was still clutching the pages of the crumpled petition signed by three-hundred-eighty-seven members of that somewhat sensitive denomination and the Chamber of Commerce board. He stopped in his tracks, wound up and let fly.
“Well, that helped a lot,” Sheila observed from the doorway to the rear office. She stood with one hip cocked against the door jamb, gnawing as daintily as possible on one of the giant apples she was almost never without. This was when she still had her sense of humor, so she added, “Maybe they’ll pray for you, lover.”
“I’ll tell you what they can do with their prayers.” William scowled at Fancy for fetching the fast-pitched petition and uncrumpling it.
“It says they want you to show more respect for the leaders of the city and to cease your disruptive publication of sensationalized and negative accounts. Mr. G, I think you got to ’em this time.”
“He didn’t invite us to church,” Sheila observed between munches.
“I’ll tell you what they can do with their church,” William said, sharing his scowl with all of us who lurked, watching the show. “Don’t you people have work to do?”
It was right then, the whisper of a thought. It crept to the edge of my consciousness, peeped its head around the corner and leaped out waving wildly.
He’s going crazy.
I still maintain, these decades gone, that whatever his mental state and despite his contempt for most men of the cloth, had William not been a newspaperman, he would have been a fire and brimstone preacher. He’d have collected souls for the Great Almighty like an old-time bounty hunter, riding in on a spent horse, leading another with his catch slung over the saddle—dead or alive.