Joyland

The South |

Rowing

by Karen Dietrich

Karen Dietrich's memoir, The Girl Factory, is available now from skirt/Globe Pequot.

My father murdered five people before I was born. 

I don’t know my father in the way a child usually knows a parent, so I don’t know if murder fits him, the way a certain type of clothing fits a certain type of body.  I only know what my mother tells me, what my grandmother tries to tell me before my mother stops her, what I hear teachers say to each other as I walk the worn carpet of the school hallway. 

I haven’t read anything about him or his case.  For now, I’ll let the information build, those stories and articles and court transcripts that surely exist out there, information strung between satellites and underground wires.  It will be there when I’m ready, I tell myself.

I do know the facts of the case.  The cold hard facts, as a detective would say in a black and white movie.  And these facts are hard – there is no dampening the noise of what he did.  When you say what he did, it sounds like a jar of nails thrown on the kitchen floor.  My father walked into an electronics store one day and killed five people. 

My father was still married when he met my mother.  When she became pregnant with me, his wife found out and kicked him out of the house and he moved in with us, us being my mother and me, the unborn baby.  I guess it would be easier to refer to my father by name, but in my mind, I never call him by his real name. 

I’ve named my father Calvin in my mind, after a scented slip of paper I found at the perfume counter at Dillard’s when I was much younger.  On that day I decided that rectangle of perfumed paper smelled like a girl whose father isn’t on death row, which is where my father is.  Right now, he’s there in Raiford, the Florida State Prison, where the famous electric chair, Old Sparky, is kept.  Florida stopped electrocuting people in 1993.  They kill by lethal injection now, a syringe of sodium chloride that stops the heart. 

On death row, it’s mostly men and they’re mostly murderers.  When I hear death row I think of men on a large ship with many oars, and my father is rowing, his muscles tensing and pulling with each stroke.  He is rowing toward death.  It’s an action, not a place.  My father began rowing toward death the morning he walked into the electronics store where his wife worked.  He walked right in and shot four people.  They were people who just happened to be in the store, shopping for phone cords or camcorders or mouse pads. 

He dragged his wife from behind the counter, where she might have been making change for a customer or answering a question about a DVD player.  He held the gun to her head and she must have screamed.  He got in his car with her and headed south, and somewhere along the way he shot her in the head.  Where was he going?  You can’t escape Florida by driving south.  You drive through deep swamp, through The Keys, until eventually you hit water with nowhere else to go. 

When you reach the southernmost tip of Key West, there’s a large concrete buoy painted red and black and yellow.  The buoy says “90 miles to Cuba” and it’s considered the southernmost point in the continental U.S.A.  Tourists like to get their pictures taken with it, handing cameras over to strangers so they can pose with the cement slab.   My father didn’t make it that far.  He was stopped by police somewhere near Crescent Beach, a place named after a sliver of moon.

This is where the hard facts end.  My father killed his wife and four strangers and I was born six months later.  I don’t know anything else, for now. 

The thing about your father being a murderer is that sometimes, when people first find out, they act strangely around you, as if you had something to do with it.  As if you were there in the car with the bullets and the gun and the bloody seats.  You’re guilty by association, because your DNA is flawed, like his, the same DNA they must have used to convict him, even though I doubt they needed much evidence.  So many people watched him drag her out by her hair. 

If I were able to know about it, if I were even remotely interested in knowing about it, I would want to know what he was thinking right then and there.  When he woke up that morning, when he was brushing his teeth, was he thinking about me, the unborn me?  Was he thinking about my mother?  Was there some switch in him, some tripwire he activated, like a mouse stepping toward the cheese and activating the mousetrap, its skinny neck snapped in an instant?

You know you could always just ask him, says a voice inside my head.  He’s still alive.  For now.

In my dreams, I push into dark blue.  My body is a ripple, a coin dropped in a fountain.  I swim in spirals, in half moons.  My mother floats somewhere near the surface.  She finds me, smoothes my skin.  I see her face – her eyes first, always looking at me. I want to swim down, down, down until I can’t swim anymore.  The water is clean.  It is just the two of us now.  I know my mother.  She is all I know so far.