They'll Never Find the Corpse | Essay | Chicago Reader

They'll Never Find the Corpse 

I'm ready to come clean.

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The time has come to confess. I know that I am putting myself in danger of prosecution, but I have faced death enough times to know that the next time could easily be my last, and so have decided to come clean now rather than let this mystery remain unsolved forever.

Forty years or more have passed since that fateful summer day. Lake County, Indiana, was a more beautiful, more natural place then, with plenty of second-growth forests to wander in, great groves of ferns in the sunny clearings, and plenty of low-lying blueberries and thorny blackberries to pick. It was a time when there were virtually no gun laws, when all sorts of firearms could be bought mail order or found in rusty piles at flea markets, and so we had military rifles and old shotguns piled in the corners, pistols hanging in their holsters from the bedposts, and rarer arms displayed on racks hanging on the walls. They were more than hunting guns, they were symbols of our independence and strength, and we were never more than two steps from a loaded weapon.

Of course, accidents would happen, or someone would get overwrought emotionally and discharge a gun at an inopportune time.

I remember the whippoorwills. They'd wait until dark, then land in the tree just outside our bedroom window to start up their incessant repetition of the sound that gave the species its name--over and over again, usually more than one hundred times in a row. We counted. The days had been long, dry and hot, and we longed for the cool of the darkness, for a bit of quiet and a respite from the family bickering, and here was this loud thing cawing its cursed call into the window for hours on end.

Yet we were shocked and frightened when our father burst into our bedroom armed with his trusty .410 gauge and shot at the damn thing right through the window screen. Later, when we thought about it, we laughed, and decided it was pretty funny. He missed--that time.

My father liked to stay out there on the farm. He did piecework in the packinghouses ten hours a day all winter, being paid by the deboned ham, so he'd have the money to take the summer off. It was a dream come true for an immigrant peasant like himself. He had about five acres of tillable soil, and maybe forty acres of woods. He would have moved us all out there, but my mother wanted to stay home in Chicago to keep our bicycle shop on Cermak and Leavitt open, and especially to be near her parents, who were already pretty old. We would go back and forth, depending on when and which aunt or uncle could provide transportation, and my father was often there alone.

That one weekend, we pulled up in my aunt's new 1957 Ford, with my mom, my aunt, and all three of us brothers and our three cousins packed into it, we six boys ranging in age from seven to fifteen. The place was strangely deserted. Soon we heard crashing branches and Italian curses coming from the woods. It took us a while to find him, and he looked pretty bad, all red faced and swearing, covered with dust and broken bits of dry leaves stuck to his sweaty skin, his arms bloodied and scratched where the blackberry vines had torn at him.

My father always had a hard life. Raised in Italy, he came here as a young man, but made everyone believe that he'd been born here. All he had to prove it was a baptismal certificate that we found out later was a phony. He drifted from Pittsburgh to Chicago, then Davenport, often homeless and hungry, sweeping floors in bars in exchange for a table to sleep on for the night. Because he was a big man, just over six feet tall, he got hired as a Pinkerton during strikes in the 30s. He was handed a club and expected to break heads.

Then there was the story about the cold winter in Iowa, with weeks and weeks of subzero, when he was stealing coal. He told us about the Luger he had stuck in his belt and how he used it when the watchman started beating him with a club. He beat it to Chicago and the story made the local paper. He quoted the headline often. "Johnny Botta, Gun Toter," he'd repeat over and over, until you couldn't tell if he was proud or sorry. Sometimes he'd get upset over something he couldn't talk about, order us away from the table, and just sit there, real quiet, smoking a cigarette and glowering, until he could calm himself down.

That day in Indiana he was angry again.

He'd gone into the woods after a pig that had dug its way out of the pen. "I'm gonna get an iron pipe and beat the shit out of that pig. Just for a little piece of corn like this"--he held the end of his pinkie finger with his other hand--"he digs this great big goddamn hole, the sonofabitch!"

He started tearing boards and junk out of the overgrowth and throwing them in the direction of the pigpen, then to the left and right, working off his rage. At the house in Chicago he'd once broken half the windows in the built-in bookcase opposite his seat at the head of the table with a forceful hurl of the handiest thing, a loaf of Italian bread. We ran and got him a cold pop, which was how we told him he was out of line in a nice way. After he calmed down he let us know he had something he was dying to tell us.

"You guys missed all the excitement," he said. "There was a murder, right in that little empty house down the sand road. All kinds of cops were there, the state cops, the sheriff's police, they dug out that whole basement."

I suddenly felt hot, almost feverish, and my sweat began to pour. I looked over at my brothers and cousins.

"Did they find any bodies?" my mother asked.

"No, they dug and dug," he answered. "They must have dug that basement out seven feet deep, and I think they're going to dig it out some more."

My cousin Dave was older than me, but I knew that the whole thing had been my idea, and he knew it, too. Pete and Panch were a year younger and had just been following along, trying to hang out with the bigger guys and pleased we hadn't chased them off along with the youngest boys, Nino and Gigi, for once. It wasn't fair that they should get blamed for what happened. I decided to come clean.

"Pa, I did it. The other boys were all there, but it was my idea."

He looked at me like I was some stranger. His scowl returned, I could see him start to turn red again. My mother and my aunt's jaws dropped and their eyes opened wide. Then I told them what had happened.

The previous weekend, the six of us had been walking east on the sand road, all heavily armed. It was another hot Indiana day, and we were actually getting along well, ready to do something that took some cooperation and organization to pull off.

We came to that little farmhouse and we started poking around the remains of a collapsed storage shed in back of it, just picking through the junk and fishing out things that looked interesting. I found this gallon jug of reddish fluid, which we thought was wine at first, but when I took off the cap and smelled it, it had more of a turpentine smell. It had the color of old blood, like that of a rabbit that was skinned a half day after the hunt.

I noticed that the back door of the house was ajar, and we went in. Just inside, there was a little landing, with a few steps up to its left side leading into the house, and a stairway on the right leading down. We made our way down and found a basement with a sand floor. A shovel leaned against the foundation.

That's when I got the idea. We talked it over and agreed it was a good one. We stacked up our guns and went back outside to the sand driveway. Dave lay down in the road, making an impression in the soft sand, then Pete and I got him by his arms and dragged him down the driveway to the back door. Then I opened the gallon of red stuff we'd found in the wreckage of the shed and made a gory trail over the track his heels had made in the sand. We continued the crimson trail into the house and down the stairs to the sandy basement. Then we dug up enough of the sand with the shovel to make a grave-sized mound. Dave lay down next to it, making another impression, and then we emptied the rest of the bottle into it. We surveyed our work: not bad, very convincing, we thought. Then we picked up our guns and walked home and didn't think about it again until the old man brought it up the next week.

We had no way of knowing that someone regularly checked up on that empty little house, that they would think our little trick looked convincing, too. We'd never dreamed that it would fool the professional homicide investigators of the great state of Indiana.

My father wore an expression I'd never seen before, one I couldn't understand. He stared at me with his dark brown eyes, and I could see the strange flecks of mossy green in them. Suddenly, his big fist pounded on the table, making the soda pop bottles jump.

His expression turned to disbelief, then his scowl became a crazy grin. Then he laughed and laughed. His breath came in gasps, then he wiped the tears from his eyes. He took a deep breath.

"Oh boy, would they like to catch you! They dug out that whole basement! You should have seen those fat cops sweat! All day they worked! Boy, would they love to get you!"

But they never did. Not yet, anyway.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Werner.

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