It begins with an old song on the radio, one by the Monkees that you and your sister loved when you were small.
In those days it seemed the two of you were always singing. If I Had a Hammer on the front stoop before dinner. The Cat Came Back and Boom Boom Ain’t It Great to be Crazy on car trips. My Baby Loves Lovin’ as you walked beside her into town. When you entered the corner store that smelled of newspapers and candy buttons, she’d drape a long arm over your shoulder and pull you close.
“This is my baby sister,” she’d announce to the boys who dropped their comics back on the rack and sauntered over. It made you feel protected and, at the same time, nearly famous.
Now you find yourself poring over her school records, and staying up late scanning photos onto the computer so you can zoom in on her wild-girl smile.
You even type her name into a search box on the Internet, believing for just a moment that you might find a picture of your sister as a middle-aged woman on Facebook.
“You’re such a goof,” she used to say, twisting her mouth to hide her smile. She said it after you couldn’t stop turning in your seat to get her attention as she sat in the back of your kindergarten classroom, teacher’s helper for the day. She said it again as she patted at your eyes with wet cotton the time you tried on her false lashes and managed to glue both lids shut. “You’re such a goof,” you tell yourself now for even allowing the idea of finding her online flit through your mind.
For of course pecking out letters on a keyboard won’t bring her closer, any more than pleading kept her from running away from home, from you. And of course, nothing you let yourself imagine will undo what ultimately happened to her, or her husband, or their eleven-month-old son.
What does come up is an article about Detective Hendrix, the man who used a phone bill and a breadcrumb trail of stolen goods to figure out that it was their apartment mates who killed the three of them. Napoleon Hendrix, you learn, solved more than five hundred homicides over his long career, all while wearing his signature Armani suits, Stetson hat, and snakeskin boots.
Because the death penalty had been considered, but the jury decided on life without parole, there is a chapter about the trial in a law text on Google Books. And since your sister was nearly eight months pregnant, the case is also cited in regard to others concerning fetal murder.
You reword your search to include your brother-in-law’s name and find a blurb about the killings in an article listing interesting things to do in their city. The piece includes movie theaters, murals, dance clubs, and community gardens. You scroll through it, baffled until you reach the heading, Places Where Bad Things Happened. The writing is jaunty. Sure, this is a great town with beautiful architecture and breathtaking views, wonderful people, first-class restaurants, sourdough bread, blah, blah, blah. But let’s not gloss over the truth: this place is also a magnet for sickos… Your sister’s address is number five on a list of crime scenes. The paragraph about your family begins, Even many true-crime buffs don’t know about the Crawl Space Killers. The year was 1982. The victims, an entire family…1
“Ghouls,” you mutter, and afterwards, feel angry for days.
According to your sister, two kinds of monsters hovered over your shared bedroom at night and only she knew which were on duty. For the boy monsters, the mean ones, you protected yourselves by huddling together in one bed, whispering and playing pretend. The girl monsters, she assured you, didn’t mind if you went straight to sleep. She called them the nice ones but you secretly preferred when the others were in charge and you had no choice but to stay up awhile longer, inventing stories like she taught you to do with Barbies clutched in your hands. Though here, in the dark, you didn’t need those dolls to transform yourselves. “Let’s say…” she’d start, and you’d lean in, wondering what the magic in her mind would make of you.
One night you type in the names of the convicted killers and find a document that, once you get past the penal codes and attorneys’ names, gives details you’d have learned had you or your parents attended the trial. You read that your sister’s body—a towel still knotted around her neck— was found dressed in a nightie, panties, and one slipper. You are wearing a nightie, panties, and slippers as you read it. The words safe and trusting pop into your head. Your tea grows cold beside your computer. Your child sleeps down the hall behind a closed door. But it’s the thought of your sister, padding around her kitchen on a January morning, that has your attention. You see her warming a bottle of milk in a small pan of water at her stove. Her thick hair still an unbrushed tangle. The day still stretched before her like a promising road.
A nightie, panties, and one slipper. You remember your sister in a pair of polka dot pajamas. They had a rip in the knee and were just a bit too short. Only we get to see her like this, you thought, as the two of you sat curled on the couch watching Bewitched. Out in the world, your sister was stylish. Hair frosted and ironed, skirts and tights a perfect combination. But here at home, with you, she could be plain. You studied the marbly skin on her shins, the beauty mark like a piece of dropped chocolate on her ankle. Only we get to see her like this.
For a brief time, the two of you had matching summer pajamas, blue shorts with a red and white striped top. The following season you’d both outgrown them, and it was several years before you grew into hers. By then the two of you owned long prairie dresses. Whenever you saw your sister in hers, you’d run and put yours on.
“People will think we’re trying to be twins,” she’d complain. And if you begged her to pin your hair into a bun just like hers, she’d sigh and roll her eyes. Still, she did as you asked every time, sitting you in front of the mirror, working a comb gently through your knots.
Now you find that the more you know about the murders, the more you need to know. When you come upon a document with the name of their landlord, the man who had found the first body, you write it down and call him. Soft-spoken, kind, he tells you how much he liked your sister’s husband, despite that he sometimes fell behind in the rent.
“He was trying his best to take care of his family,” he says, adding that this was why he looked the other way when they brought in that other couple to share expenses. But then they stopped paying altogether and the landlord tried to reach them for weeks. You press the phone to your ear as he describes how strange it was to enter their vacated apartment. To find one of the small bedrooms completely cleared out, the other filled with things all in disarray. That same day he went to clean out the crawlspace under the house and found your brother-in-law’s body.
“It was the worst moment of my life,” he says. He confides that he couldn’t look at food, especially meat, for a very long time.
Soon, you find yourself flying to the city where your sister and her family had lived and been killed. Gazing out the oval airplane window you recall another visit to that city, decades before, with your parents. You were a freshman in high school, your sister a street urchin at twenty. She promised to meet you in the hotel lobby, but never showed. All that week you brought out her picture, flashed it to bus drivers, waiters, musicians on the street.
“Have you seen this girl? Have you seen her?”
Until finally your father said, “That’s enough.”
“We know she does this,” your mother added, along with the cold, placating refrain of your childhood. “Don’t worry. She always turns up. Like a bad penny.”
Now you stand outside the apartment house your sister lived in with the one man who was able to hold her. “Marry me,” he’d said the first time they met. Convinced he was handing her a line, she answered with a dare. “Get me a ring.” And he did, the next day, a diamond from the five and dime.
The entrance to their building is blocked by a wrought iron gate. The facade painted a strange, sad green. That it looks familiar has less to do with your few visits to this place as a teenager than with how closely it resembles your sealed up, ancient grief.
There, in an apartment at the very back, your sister learned to cook, your nephew to crawl and pull himself up to standing. On the last day of his life, you happened to be there, and he clasped your shoulder as he stood.
“Yay,” you sang and he grinned, a spot of drool glistening at the corner of his mouth. A new litter of kittens mewed inside a box beside you on the floor. A rifle, which, the following evening, would be used to kill that baby’s father, hung above the couch where a family portrait might have gone.
In almost all photos of the two of you, you lean against your sister so that it seems she is the thing that holds you up. In one of your favorite shots, you are on a boardwalk, sunbathers barely visible on the stretch of sand at your back. Your sister, who is nine here, crouches behind you, arms wrapped around your waist, cheek touching yours. Both of you are smiling, she at the camera or at your father who is peering through it. Your eyes are nearly closed, your grin clearly a response to having her so near.
Not far from the apartment building you find the mortuary where their small funeral took place. Inside, a woman hands you the stapled sheets of paper that are all that’s left of the event. Tears stream down her cheeks as you talk about those long-ago murders. She hugs you, saying the hug is really from your sister, and you sink into it, wanting to believe those words.
What you don’t mention is that you hadn’t been at the service thirty years before. That, until you sent for your sister’s death certificate just recently, you hadn’t known there’d been any memorial at all.
Other families have funerals and we have this, you wrote in your notebook after the one piece of the trial you attended, the sentencing. Sitting on a hard bench in the back of the courtroom, you studied the couple who, hands cuffed behind their backs, awaited their fates. You tried to see the thing inside them that would allow them to kill a pregnant woman, a sweet bear of a man, an infant. But they appeared ordinary in their prison suits that fit like medical scrubs or kids’ pajamas. The woman even wore a plastic baby barrette in her hair.
Now you wonder if your folks knew about the funeral and chose not to tell you. When you were growing up, punishment for a runaway was reform school. Your sister was gone so much of the time, you lost track of whether she’d run off or been sent. She was home, gone, home again, a jump rope swinging skyward then slapping the pavement with no predictable rhythm. After the murders, the three of you lived without your sister just as you had then. As though it was the normal state of things. As though everything was fine. You remember your mother sighing and busying herself with a dust rag. Your father saying, “Poor kid was finally getting her life together” as he plunged into his toolbox and began rewiring a second-hand lamp. You missed your sister terribly, but the feeling was simply familiar. That, you think now, is why it was the one emotion you allowed in.
Other families have funerals and we have this.
Rather than mourn your nephew, you focused on the times you’d seen your sister ignore him, on the way your brother-in-law sometimes teased him that, to you, seemed unkind. The little guy would have had a hard life, you told yourself, as would the one who died curled like a question mark inside your sister. This belief let you seal yourself off from your brother-in-law, let you forget his steadiness and his humor, allowed you to make him paper-thin like the photos that were all you now had of him.
Sometimes, in an attempt to break through your own numbness, you raged at your parents.
“Don’t you care?” you’d shout, slamming the door to your room. Alone, you’d take out the two rings that had belonged to your sister, a gift from a previous boyfriend who’d also hoped to marry her. You recalled the day your sister brought them out to show you, placing them into your palm. Slim, gold, with lines of inlaid pearl and a tiny hook and eye to connect them. A wedding set so delicate and perfect you felt you should whisper in its presence. But then your mother snatched them from your hand and snapped them into her change purse.
“I’m holding these for safekeeping,” she told your sister. “You’ll just lose them or give them away.”
The two of you sat, shocked into silence.
“She stole my rings!” your sister finally burst, her voice shaking, incredulous.
Avoiding her eyes, you decided this was about safeguarding the rings, not alliances. You decided they were too nice to let disappear like everything else your sister touched. “She’s just holding them for you,” you said.
Twenty years later, you ran errands on an autumn afternoon with your mother, your son an eight-pound bundle strapped to your chest.
“You should write a memoir,” your mother suggested, as though you’d been discussing such things. The idea struck you as laughable, especially given how small your world seemed in those first weeks as a mother, this stroll to the drugstore for diapers your one outing for the week.
“I think you’ve lead an interesting life,” she continued, and cited your sister as an example.
Her name in your mother’s voice seemed a foreign object. Something hidden away in a dusty corner so long its uses were lost to you.
“Yeah right,” you drawled, sounding, you realized, exactly like your sister.
There was so much you could have asked your mother then. Did she have regrets? Did she grieve her? She’d made a space where you could finally bring up such things, but you stepped back from it. “These days I can barely write my name,” you said.
On the top floor of the main library in your sister’s city, a librarian hands you a fat binder of police reports where you find the unborn baby referred to as Jane Doe. “It was a girl,” you say aloud, stunned by this brand new knowledge, your throat closing in on the words.
You spend many hours in that library hunched before a microfilm reader, spinning from article to article so that the story unfolds much as it did through phone calls from the detectives when you were nineteen. Body Found Rolled Up in Rug; Two More Bodies Found Under House in S.F.; S.F. Police Have Not a Clue About Three Neatly Wrapped Bodies. This last has a photograph of two tubular rolls of blankets lying in a junk-filled crawlspace. It describes how the bodies were found amid poisoned rats and the domestic cats that died from eating the rodents. You had wondered what happened to the box of kittens in the apartment, and now you know.
Finally you come upon the headline Fine Sleuthing Solves S.F. Murders of 3. And after that, the articles are about the killers rather than their victims. Florida Holds Couple Wanted in Slaughter of S.F. Family; Coroner’s Evidence Could Link Couple to Family’s Murder. This last details how the coroner studied the flies, larvae and maggots on the bodies to pinpoint the exact date of their deaths.
The couple who killed your family is behind bars for the rest of their lives. This is the closest you can come to a happy ending. But your heart is stuck on those earlier articles, the ones where the victims are as yet unidentified. They can be anybody. This can be one of those stories you read in the paper that leave you feeling chilled and sad, yet you still can go on with your day.
One early evening you walk from the library to the law office of the prosecutor who tried the case. Together you sit at a dark wooden table going over what each of you knows. There are the facts you have in common. Your sister was strangled and the baby smothered. The killers waited for your brother-in-law to come home from work, then shot him with his rifle. Together, they hog-tied his body, wrapped it in bedding, then dragged it to the crawlspace where the bodies of his wife and son already lay. At least this is how you hope it happened for your sister’s husband. Another theory is that they tied him up first and shot him execution style. That he lay there, helpless, the long barrel pressed to his head.
When it was over, the murderers drove through Nevada and then down to Florida in your brother-in-law’s truck, selling his and your sister’s belongings along the way. Among the goods was a ring your brother-in-law had bought your sister for Christmas, designed by a local jeweler, one of only two of a kind. The couple hocked it in Reno, using the man’s own I.D.
“I met the murderers,” you say, and the attorney leans forward in his chair. “I was here, visiting.”
The man was tall, you recall, handsome. He had more tattoos than you’d ever seen on one person. His wife was a much older woman with a voice like she was holding back a cough. There in that apartment, after you played with the baby and admired the kittens, you sat with this couple and watched an old movie on TV.
“Just look at that guy with the pencil thin mustache,” the man who would strangle your sister said as Errol Flynn swung from a mast in his tights and thigh-high boots. “Tell me that good-looking blonde haired man doesn’t always get his way.”
You were on winter break from college. A sophomore. Sophomoric. Earlier that day, as you walked with your sister and her family in Golden Gate Park, you felt restless. You now had friends in that city, artists and writers with whom you planned to explore the de Young museum, browse through books at City Lights, recite your poems at open readings. Miss Educated, your sister had taken to calling you. “You’re the body, I’m the brains,” you teased back and she laughed. Yet, right then, you felt you’d outgrown her.
Busy with friends, you put off phoning your sister until the following evening, though she’d asked you to call first thing. When your brother-in-law picked up he sounded worried. He didn’t know where your sister and the baby had gone. Over the next few days, you called repeatedly, but after that first time, the phone only rang and rang. When a friend suggested you contact the police, you shrugged it off. You described the time your family flew in to see her and your sister never showed, and another when, after a week together, she took off while you lay in your hotel room asleep.
“We were leaving that day but she didn’t come back to say goodbye.”
Your friend pointed out that all that happened before she was married. “Now she’s got the baby and she’s so pregnant.”
Still, you maintained, this was typical of your sister. She was probably doing it this time because you took so long to call.
Regardless, you and this friend drove to your sister and brother-in-law’s apartment house. When no one came to the door, you wandered the neighborhood, poking your head into coffee shops, approaching people on park benches who might know them.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this again,” you said.
Finally you flew home assuming, as did everyone—your sister’s friends, your parents—that they’d left because they couldn’t pay their rent.
“She always turns up,” your mother reminded you, “like a bad penny.”
Six weeks after you watched Errol Flynn duel on your sister’s small black and white television, the police called to say your brother-in-law’s body was discovered beneath the house, his state of decay placing his death at the time of your visit. Three weeks passed during which you ran to the phone every time it rang, hoping to hear your sister’s voice. Then she and the baby were found, all the more decomposed, only ten feet further back.
You ask the prosecutor about motive, a part of the story you could never fill in on your own. He tells you that the detectives came to believe it somehow started with your nephew. That his crying angered the man and it escalated from there.
“But he was such a quiet baby,” you say as if it matters. The thought passes through your mind that he’d have grown up to be quiet and unflappable like his father. On a whim, in the weeks before this trip you Googled his full name. A photo of a businessman came up on LinkedIn, someone who resembled your nephew enough, with his round cheeks and lopsided grin, that a shiver passed through you. Days later, you tried duplicating the search, but the photo of the man was gone.
“Why now?” the attorney asks. “Why look into all this after so many years?”
You gaze up at this person who spent months and months of his younger life working to put your sister’s killers behind bars. How do you admit to him that, though you are almost twice as old as your older sister ever got to be, you’ve spent most of those years allowing yourself to experience her death as yet another of her many departures, no more or less heartbreaking than the rest.
Then what? You turned on the radio and a song came on you’d heard countless times. Only this particular evening, your parents long gone, it occurred to you that you were the one person left who remembered how your sister loved it. This led you to reflect on how few people likely remembered her at all.
Not long before this, your son had threatened to run away. It was in the midst of an ordinary disagreement. He wanted a video game you deemed too violent. Your boy had just turned twelve, the age your sister was when she began leaving, and as he spat out those words you felt a jolt of panic. What if he’s a runaway like her? you thought. What if he’s got the runaway gene?
That night, after all was forgiven and you looked in on your sleeping son, you finally grasped that being a runaway wasn’t a character flaw or a syndrome. That your sister’s leaving may have been a sound reaction to her contentious relationship to your mom.
“She’s impossible” your mother spat to your father, to other mothers, to you.
What adolescent isn’t? the grown you thought, gently closing your son’s bedroom door.
The realization pushed you toward some of your own dark corners—your brief and difficult marriage to your son’s father, for one. You came to see how you intentionally chose someone more spoiled and demanding than you were as penance for having been the favored child. You also began to better understand your appalling sleep habits. Though you’d always blamed your sister for the fear of abandonment that keeps you up late into the night, anxious and vigilant, you now comprehended the other piece too. When you wake in the morning, every morning, already berating yourself for the smallest of mistakes, what you’re feeling is guilt—over the times you betrayed your sister so as to protect your own safe place in the family, over getting to wake up at all. Survivor syndrome, you read, is an aspect of post-traumatic stress, numbness a symptom too.
Uncried tears, you thought, the evening your son looked up from his science homework to tell you that the human body is 60% to 70% water. At least for me, you thought, uncried tears. For, of course, that last time you lost your sister, she didn’t just leave. Her life was taken, brutally, as was her husband’s and her son’s, both of whom you loved. As was the life of your almost-niece, who at thirty weeks was nearly fully formed and ready to be, like you, someone’s little sister.
The attorney sits watching you with his kind, dark eyes. Why now? he’d asked. You think again of your son shouting at you that he’d run away. As he stood there that night—fists clenched, daring you—you finally realized that your big sister hadn’t been the worldly, invincible person you’d believed her to be when she first snuck out the door. She’d been a child. A little girl calling for attention and for help. Of course you couldn’t hear it then. You were a baby yourself. But thanks to your boy, who happened to inherit your sister’s fieriness along with her teasing humor and sly smile, you hear it now.
“For a long time, I couldn’t look directly at it,” you tell the attorney. An abbreviation, imprecise, inadequate, but it’s what you can manage aloud.
“I think I may have something,” he says, and after searching his files brings out a drawing by the man who, together with his wife, killed your family, an image of a skull with a snake slithering through its mouth and eyeholes, the word Enforcer calligraphed along the side. In turn, you show him photographs of your beautiful sister and her strong, young husband, of your little funny-faced nephew with his pudgy baby legs. He looks at those photos for a long moment then says “Thank you” so quietly you barely hear.
Before you leave your sister’s city, you pull out those photos again, prop them against a headstone that marks a single shared grave. You sit cross-legged on the grass with your two nieces, the daughters of a different, and much older half-sister who was raised separately. One of the girls, who are both too young to have met their other aunt, asks if you own anything that once belonged to her.
“Two delicate gold rings,” you tell them, admitting why you feel bad about having them.
“It’s funny,” your other niece says. “Our mom told us she loaned her her favorite jade ring and never got it back.”
“There are a lot of rings in my sister’s story,” you say.
They know about the ring that became a major piece of evidence when Phillip and Velma Henderson sold it en route to Florida, so you tell of the gum machine diamond your brother-in-law gave your sister the day after they met. You also share something you recently learned from the trial transcripts you’ve begun to read. It seems your sister and brother-in-law hadn’t actually been married. “When she found out her mom and dad and sister were coming into town from New York,” a close friend of theirs testified, “she bought an old silver wedding ring that I had.”
It stung to come upon those words, to learn that your sister had lumped you with your parents, lying to all of you. Still, reading the testimony of her good friend felt almost like being next to her again, back in her confidence like in the days she blew smoke rings for you in the bathroom, relaxed in the knowledge that her secrets were safe with you.
You have a secret too. There’s a ring she never knew about, one your ex-husband asked that you have tattooed on your finger to prove your love to him. Of course you couldn’t do it, couldn’t ever get a tattoo knowing Phillip Henderson had been—still is—covered in them.
The afternoon is passing, growing chill. Before you leave the cemetery, your nieces give you time alone at the grave.
Taking a breath, you say, “Hey, Ray.”
When you first met Raymond Boggs, you were a skinny, insecure teenager.
“Your picture doesn’t do you justice,” he’d said, the exact words you needed to hear.
“Thank you for being so loving to my sister,” you tell him now.
Then you talk to your nephew, also named Ray, whom you held within moments of his birth. He had six toes on one of his little feet, another fact, you realize, you’re probably the only person left in the world to know.
“You were such a good baby,” you whisper. “I’m sure you would have been an amazing man.”
Next you talk to Jane Doe Boggs, your niece who never made it to birth.
“I wish you had seen the sky,” you tell her. “I wish you got to press your face into your mother’s thick hair.”
Finally you speak to Angie, your first love in this life.
“You taught me about being happy,” you tell her. “You were the brightest light in our house.”
Here is where I finally cry. Because of course this isn’t your story but mine, and it’s time for me to claim it.
Andrea Susan Gritz, my sister, took the name Angie from a Rolling Stones song and the name Boggs when she unofficially married a kind, adoring man. She named her son Ray like his father, like a bar of sunlight. She hoped her second born would be a girl. If they had a name for her in mind I never knew.
Andrea liked the smell of gas stations. Her favorite snack had once been celery with cream cheese. “Touch tongues,” she used to say when we were little and I’d tap my tongue to hers for a second. An intimate flicker. A secret sister moment.
Now, under a moody northern California sky, I start to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, but change my mind and sing I’m a Believer instead. When we were small, Andrea and I danced on our beds whenever the Monkees came on the radio.
“Try this,” she’d say, wriggling her hips for the Twist, or corkscrewing her body downward, nose held, for the Swim. We’d do this with pajama bottoms on our heads, pretending to be beautiful young women with long flowing hair.
Through most of our growing up we saw so little of each other, we took to trading things when we were together. One 45 for another, a pair of jeans for a flouncy skirt. Now, I peel a ring off my finger and bury it in the dirt. Such a small thing, a little circle of silver framing a hole. But small things were all I’d ever been able to give my sister. I could keep her smoking a secret. Trade my leather jacket for her frayed sweater, knowing she’s gotten the better deal. Be the one person she could count on to always be thrilled to see her. Except for that last time when, not knowing it would be the last time, I felt restless and superior. For so long, I couldn’t let myself grieve or even miss her because it meant recalling having felt those things.
I sit at the grave awhile longer, freshly cut grass tickling my ankles, sun bright despite the clouds. These days I miss her something awful. Only awful may be the wrong word here, since missing Angie has brought her back to me a little.
I pat at the soil above the buried ring. “Sorry I took so long,” I say.
1. San Francisco Bay Guardian. sfbg.com, April 23, 2003.↩
Rumpus original art by Carl Dimitri.