The Circle was small, usually just six or seven people, sometimes as many as a dozen, every once in a while just two or three. Even with my sporadic attendance it wasn't long before I'd heard everyone's story, the pain, the loss, the grief, the inevitable victory signified by their presence in Group. Participation was voluntary, but members were strongly encouraged to testify, to relate their Incident and to describe the aftermath and the recovery. You might recognize some of the words from one of those survivor groups, but in Group we're taught not to think of survivors, or victims, or perpetrators: everyone's a person, before and after the Incident, and the only thing Group does is remind us of that fact. I managed to worm my way out of testifying for a long time but finally no one would listen to my excuses anymore and so I took my place in the center of the Circle and told them what I knew, which wasn't much. An apparent robbery, my mother's return home, a push down the stairs, a broken neck. Rigor mortis and the can of pop and then my father. I left out the glasses and the pearls and the cloud of green gas that I'd pushed out of my mother's belly because that didn't seem relevant to Group, and when I'd finished telling the story Lucy Ferguson, gently rocking on her knee the eldest son of the man who had killed her father, said, Well, what does he have to say about it? I thought she meant my father, but she meant Shenandoah Manson, and when I told her I had no idea she said, Well then I think it's high time you found out, and Raylene Cummings said, High time is better than no time, and Janyne Watson led the chorus of Amens. The next day Lucy Ferguson picked me up when she went to visit her husband. Out to the penitentiary. I held George Jr. on my lap because Lucy Ferguson believed in God and she believed in Group but she didn't believe in child-safety seats. "Trap my baby boy in a hunk of burning metal?" she cooed. "How could I even think of such a thing?"
I don't know what I expected to happen when I confronted my mother's killer, but I certainly wasn't prepared for the sense of disappointment I felt when he shuffled into the room. The shuffling wasn't caused by leg irons or anything so dramatic: Shenandoah Manson was simply a man who shuffled, and stooped, and squinted behind silly Buddy Holly glasses held together at the bridge with a rolled-up Band-Aid. His skinny frame swam inside his orange jumpsuit. His hair was cut short, parted on the side, combed over neatly. He was thirty-two years old, but he looked and acted like a teenage refugee from some fifties sitcom, and I remember thinking that this wasn't the sort of man who could kill your mother. Shenandoah Manson's shuffling feet were loud on the concrete floor, the metal balls of his chair squeaked something awful when he pulled it away from the table to sit down, but after he'd slumped into his seat there was a long moment of silence between us, during which I heard Lucy Ferguson say, "Let's show Daddy our new tooth!" I considered opening lines: "I wish you were dead"; "You're a monster"; "I've dreamed of this day for years"; but none of these statements was true, not even the last, and in the end all I could come up with was "You're smaller than I expected." Shenandoah Manson blinked when I said that; I imagine he'd also expected something more dramatic. Behind his glasses his eyes flitted about, as if looking for something to say, and then he just said, "I, um, I'm five-foot-seven." He paused. "In my socks." Visiting sessions lasted an hour, and I had to wait another hour while Lucy Ferguson, after being thoroughly frisked, retired to a little tin trailer in the center of a chain-link cage in the prison yard. I held George Jr. in my lap and I silently repeated the words my mother's killer is five-foot-seven until Lucy Ferguson finally pushed open the trailer door and blew a kiss to her husband inside. Five-foot-seven, I told George Jr. In his socks.
After the first night I offered him an upstairs bedroom but Shen said maybe he was better where he was. A pattern developed: morning coffee, work, dinner, then story time. We talked for hours every night, sometimes while drinking, sometimes cold sober. I told Shen about Group and he told me about prison. Neither of us was telling the truth, really, by which I mean that neither of us was telling the other what he really wanted to know. Every night I started from the beginning, from my first appearance at a meeting, and worked forward; and every night Shen started at the end, from his long walk out those open gates, and worked backward, and both of our stories were bound by the same unmentioned end points: by my mother's death, and by our current cohabitation, and in some way these two things became conflated in my head, and, I think, in Shen's too, and our life together took on an inflection of punishment and penitence. Unbidden, he drove me to and from work, signed his paychecks over to me for rent and food, cooked and cleaned and mowed the lawn, and he did it all with the same meek acquiescence with which he'd licked the inside of the pop can I'd given him on our second evening together. Sometimes, when we'd been drinking, he'd slouch in his chair and stare at me through his glasses, and sometimes, when we'd had too much, he'd take his glasses off and his eyes would glaze over and I knew I was little more than a pale blur to him, but even though I wanted to I never reached over and put his glasses on my own nose, even though I knew he wouldn't protest if I did. In fact the only thing that ever got a rise out of him was when I asked him to come to Group.
In my five years in Group only one member had ever brought in his Person. That's what we called them in Group: People. Not murderers or rapists or muggers or thugs. By calling them People we reminded ourselves that they were as human as we were. Clay Adams had run a pawnshop downtown for forty-six years, until the day Blake Moore came in and, in Blake's own words, went a little crazy in the head I guess. He hadn't brought a gun, he said, 'cause I was the kind of sonofabitch who'd've used it, but relied instead on a cattle prod, which in an attempt to torture the existence of a safe out of Clay Adams he'd applied to the soles of the old man's feet again and again till what they looked like, Blake Moore said, was Neapolitan ice cream, melted. As it turned out there was no safe, and all Blake Moore got for his troubles was $5.47 from the till, a ceramic statue of two black panthers,and eight years in jail. Clay Adams had recovered the statue, and the money too, but, old and diabetic, he'd lost first his feet and eventually both legs up to the knee, all told it took about a year and half, Clay Adams said. He was seventy-one years old when Blake Moore pushed him in his wheelchair into the center of the Circle and, eyes brimming with tears, presented Blake Moore with the statue he'd so coveted. He said, I just want to thank you, Blake Moore, before God and Group for allowing me to forgive you and forgive myself for what happened. Blake Moore had lost the tips of the fingers on his right hand beneath a metal press--yes ma'am, license plates--and with the smooth soft stumps he stroked the sleek black cats on his lap. After Blake Moore's trial the police had returned the statue to Clay Adams and he'd dashed the damned thing to the ground,but six years in Group and a lot of super glue had all but done the trick. One of the cats was missing an ear, but an ear ain't much, Clay Adams said, or a foot. Or fingers, Blake Moore added, not when you get right down to it. Not compared to bliss. And even at the time I knew there was something wrong with what they were saying, but the display was so compelling I was distracted. Not so long after that Clay Adams died of a stroke brought on by his diabetes, and about a year later Blake Moore went back to jail, this time for stealing cars, but the general consensus was that he'd been helped by his visit to us: at least he'd chosen a line of thievery which jeopardized no one's safety but his own.
But none of this impressed Shen. He shook his head and said:
"I don't like crowds."
"But that's the beauty of it. It's like the other people aren't there at all, and you can say the kinds of things you'd never say one on one, like this." I didn't look at Shen when I said that, because even though I knew what I was saying was true, I also knew that was the problem with Group. That feeling of superhuman isolation became all of you, obscuring everything else, and Shen seemed to sense this instinctively. In the end I struck a bargain with him: he could skip Group if he'd tell me something.
My mouth watered, and I blushed and swallowed and said, "Why our house?"
Shen squirmed in his chair.
I said, "It was a small house, and this is a prosperous neighborhood. Why ours?"
"Your mom," Shen said, and stopped. "Your mom was on a date with this guy I knew. That's how I knew she wouldn't be home."
"My mother was on a date?"
Shen shrugged and refused to meet my gaze. "She was twenty-six years old. Just because she had a kid didn't mean she was--" He shrugged again.
We left it at that, and I went to the meeting on my own. Every week I'd ask him to join me, and every week he refused. Sometimes I demanded a piece of information in exchange for letting him off the hook, but eventually I gave up that practice because I didn't like the things he told me. I didn't like the fact that my mother had gone on a date with a man who was friendly with a housebreaker, and I didn't like the fact that my mother had been humming "Afternoon Delight" when she entered her house at one in the morning, and I didn't like the fact that Shenandoah Manson called our house a slim haul--no silver, no cash, just a couple of rings and bracelets and shit, a pair of dinner-table candlesticks that were probably tin but just in case--and I especially didn't like the fact that it was the candlesticks my mother had tripped over. When he heard my mother come in--humming "Afternoon Delight"--Shenandoah Manson had tried hiding in the linen closet at the top of the stairs, but my mother had apparently decided to take a shower, or maybe she just wanted to dry her hair. At any rate she went straight to the closet for a towel without even bothering to unzip her raincoat, and when she'd pulled open the door he'd screamed; she'd screamed; he'd dropped his near-empty bag of booty and run and she'd run after him, only to trip on the candlesticks and send them both sprawling down the stairs. Somewhere in the fall he'd lost his glasses and she'd lost her life, and when he'd figured out the latter fact he'd stumbled half blind out into the night.
I told him I didn't believe him.
"Neither did the court."
"Why should I believe you?"
"Look. The reason why I went to jail is cause if I hadn't of been in that house your mother wouldn't've died. Everything else is just kind of incidental. If it makes you feel better to think I pushed your mom down the stairs, fine: I pushed your mom down the stairs."
I suppose I liked that fact least of all.
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