IN COLD BLOOD
An unspeakable crime in the heartland.By Truman Capote
SEPTEMBER 25, 1965
Editor’s note: All quotations in this article are taken either from official records or from conversations, transcribed verbatim, between the author and the principals.
The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.” Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes. The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveller reaches them.
Holcomb, too, can be seen from great distances. Not that there is much to see—simply an aimless congregation of buildings divided in the center by the main-line tracks of the Santa Fe Railway, a haphazard hamlet bounded on the south by a brown stretch of the Arkansas (pronounced “Ar-kan-sas”) River, on the north by a highway, Route 50, and on the east and west by prairie lands and wheat fields. After rain, or when snowfalls thaw, the streets, unnamed, unshaded, unpaved, turn from the thickest dust into the direst mud. At one end of the town stands a stark old stucco structure, the roof of which supports an electric sign—“dance”—but the dancing has ceased and the advertisement has been dark for several years. Nearby is another building with an irrelevant sign, this one in flaking gold on a dirty window—“holcomb bank.” The bank failed in 1933, and its former counting rooms have been converted into apartments. It is one of the town’s two “apartment houses,” the second being a ramshackle mansion known, because a good part of the local school’s faculty lives there, as the Teacherage. But the majority of Holcomb’s homes are one-story frame affairs, with front porches.
Down by the depot, the postmistress, a gaunt woman who wears a rawhide jacket and denims and cowboy boots, presides over a falling-apart post office. The depot itself, with its peeling sulphur-colored paint, is equally melancholy; the Chief, the Super-Chief, the El Capitan go by every day, but these celebrated expresses never pause there. No passenger trains do—only an occasional freight. Up on the highway, there are two filling stations, one of which doubles as a meagrely supplied grocery store, while the other does extra duty as a café—Hartman’s Café, where Mrs. Hartman, the proprietress, dispenses sandwiches, coffee, soft drinks, and 3.2 beer. (Holcomb, like all the rest of Kansas, is “dry.”)
And that, really, is all. Unless you include, as one must, the Holcomb School, a good-looking establishment, which reveals a circumstance that the appearance of the community otherwise camouflages: that the parents who send their children to this modern and ably staffed “consolidated” school—the grades go from kindergarten through senior high, and a fleet of buses transports the students, of which there are usually around three hundred and sixty, from as far as sixteen miles away—are, in general, prosperous people. Farm ranchers, most of them, they are outdoor folk of very varied stock—German, Irish, Norwegian, Mexican, Japanese. They raise cattle and sheep, grow wheat, milo, grass seed, and sugar beets. Farming is always a chancy business, but in western Kansas its practitioners consider themselves “born gamblers,” for they must contend with an extremely shallow precipitation (the annual average is eighteen inches) and anguishing irrigation problems. However, the last seven years have been years of droughtless beneficence. The farm ranchers in Finney County, of which Holcomb is a part, have done well; money has been made not from farming alone but also from the exploitation of plentiful natural-gas resources, and its acquisition is reflected in the new school, the comfortable interiors of the farmhouses, the steep and swollen grain elevators.
Until one morning in mid-November of 1959, few Americans—in fact, few Kansans—had ever heard of Holcomb. Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there. The inhabitants of the village, numbering two hundred and seventy, were satisfied that this should be so, quite content to exist inside ordinary life—to work, to hunt, to watch television, to attend school socials, choir practice, meetings of the 4-H Club. But then, in the earliest hours of that morning in November, a Sunday morning, certain foreign sounds impinged on the normal Holcomb noises—on the keening hysteria of coyotes, the dry scrape of scuttling tumbleweed, the racing, receding wail of locomotive whistles. At the time, not a soul in sleeping Holcomb heard them—four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives. But afterward the townspeople, theretofore sufficiently unfearful of each other to seldom trouble to lock their doors, found fantasy re-creating them over and again—those sombre explosions that stimulated fires of mistrust, in the glare of which many old neighbors viewed each other strangely, and as strangers.
The master of River Valley Farm, Herbert William Clutter, was forty-eight years old and, as a result of a recent medical examination for an insurance policy, knew himself to be in first-rate condition. Though he wore rimless glasses, and was of but average height, standing just under five feet ten, Mr. Clutter cut a man’s-man figure. His shoulders were broad, his hair had held its dark color, his square-jawed, confident face retained a healthy-hued youthfulness, and his teeth, unstained, and strong enough to shatter walnuts, were still intact. He weighed the same as he had the day he graduated from Kansas State University, where he had majored in agriculture—a hundred and fifty-four. He was not as rich as the richest man in Holcomb—Mr. Taylor Jones, a neighboring rancher. He was, however, the community’s most widely known citizen, prominent both there and in Garden City, the close-by county seat, where he had headed the building committee for the newly completed First Methodist Church, an eight-hundred-thousand-dollar edifice. He was currently chairman of the board of the Garden City Co-Op Equity Exchange, and his name was everywhere respectfully recognized among Midwestern agriculturists, as it was in certain Washington offices, where he had been a member of the Federal Farm Credit Board during the early years of the Eisenhower administration.
Always certain of what he wanted from the world, Mr. Clutter had in large measure obtained it. On his left hand, on what remained of a finger once mangled by a piece of farm machinery, he wore a plain gold band, which was the symbol, a quarter century old, of his marriage to the person he had wished to marry—the sister of a college classmate, a timid, pious, delicate girl named Bonnie Fox, who was three years younger than he. She had given him four children—a trio of daughters, then a son. The eldest daughter, Eveanna, married and the mother of a boy nine months old, lived in northern Illinois but visited Holcomb frequently. Indeed, she and her family were expected within the fortnight, for her parents planned a sizable Thanksgiving reunion of the Clutter clan (which had its beginnings in Germany; the first immigrant Clutter—or Klotter, as the name was then spelled—arrived here in 1880). Fifty-odd kinfolk had been asked, several of whom would be travelling from places as far away as Palatka, Florida. Nor did Beverly, the child next in age to Eveanna, any longer reside at River Valley Farm; she was in Kansas City, Kansas, studying to be a nurse. Beverly was engaged to a young biology student, of whom her father very much approved; invitations to the wedding, scheduled for Christmas week, were already printed. Which left, still living at home, the boy, Kenyon, who, at fifteen, was taller than Mr. Clutter, and one sister, who was a year older—the town darling, Nancy.
In regard to his family, Mr. Clutter had just one serious cause for disquiet—his wife’s health. She was “nervous,” she suffered “little spells”—such were the sheltering expressions used by those close to her. Not that the truth concerning “poor Bonnie’s afflictions” was in the least a secret; everyone knew she had been an on-and-off psychiatric patient the last half-dozen years. Yet even upon this shadowed terrain sunlight had very lately sparkled. The past Wednesday, returning from two weeks of treatment at the Wesley Medical Center in Wichita, her customary place of retirement, Mrs. Clutter had brought scarcely credible tidings to tell her husband; with joy she informed him that the source of her misery, so medical opinion had at last decreed, was not in her head hut in her spine—it was physical, a matter of misplaced vertebrae. Of course, she must undergo an operation, and afterward—well, she would be her “old self” again. Was it possible—the tension, the withdrawals, the pillow-muted sobbing behind locked doors, all due to an out-of-order backbone? If so, then Mr. Clutter could, when addressing his Thanksgiving table, recite a blessing of unmarred gratitude.
Ordinarily, Mr. Clutter’s mornings began at six-thirty; clanging milk pails and the whispery chatter of the boys who brought them, two sons of a hired man named Vic Irsik, usually roused him. But today he lingered—let Vic Irsik’s sons come and leave—for the previous evening, a Friday the thirteenth, had been a tiring one, though in part exhilarating. Bonnie had resurrected her “old self”; as if serving up a preview of the normality, the regained vigor, soon to be, she had rouged her lips, fussed with her hair, and, wearing a new dress, accompanied him to the Holcomb School, where they applauded a student production of “Tom Sawyer,” in which Nancy played Becky Thatcher. He had enjoyed seeing Bonnie out in public, nervous but nonetheless smiling, talking to people, and they both had been proud of Nancy; she had done so well, remembering all her lines, and looking, as he had said to her, in the course of backstage congratulations, “Just beautiful, honey—a real Southern belle.” Whereupon Nancy had behaved like one; curtsying in her hoopskirted costume, she had asked if she might drive in to Garden City. The State Theatre was having a special, eleven-thirty, Friday-the-thirteenth “Spook Show,” and all her friends were going. In other circumstances, Mr. Clutter would have refused. His laws were laws, and one of them was: Nancy—and Kenyon, too—must be home by ten on week nights, by twelve on Saturdays. But, weakened by the genial events of the evening, he had consented. And Nancy had not returned home until almost two. He had heard her come in, had called to her, for, though he not a man ever really to raise his voice, he had some plain things to say to her, statements that concerned less the lateness of the hour than the youngster who had driven her home—a school basketball hero, Bobby Rupp. Mr. Clutter liked Bobby, and considered him, for a boy his age, which was seventeen, most dependable and gentlemanly; however, in the three years she been permitted “dates,” Nancy, popular and pretty as she was, had never gone out with anyone else, and while Mr. Clutter understood that it was present national adolescent custom to form couples, to “go steady” and wear “engagement rings,” he disapproved, particularly since he had not long by accident, surprised his daughter and the Rupp boy kissing. He had then suggested that Nancy discontinue “seeing so much of Bobby,” advising her that a slow retreat now would hurt than an abrupt severance later—for, as he reminded her, it was a parting that must eventually take place. The Rupps were Roman Catholic, the Clutters Methodist—a fact that should in itself be sufficient to terminate whatever fancies she and this boy might have of someday marrying. Nancy had been reasonable—at any rate, she had not argued—and now, before saying good night, Mr. Clutter secured from her a promise to begin a gradual breaking off with Bobby. Still, the incident had lamentably put off his retiring time, which was ordinarily eleven o’clock. As a consequence, it was well after seven when he awakened on Saturday, November 14, 1959. His wife always slept as late as possible. However, while Mr. Clutter was shaving, showering, and outfitting himself in whipcord trousers, a cattleman’s leather jacket, and soft stirrup boots, he had no fear of disturbing her; they did not share the same bedroom. For several years, he had slept alone in the master bedroom, on the ground floor of the house—a two-story, fourteen-room frame-and-brick structure. Though Mrs. Clutter stored her clothes in the closets of this room, and kept her few cosmetics and her myriad medicines in the blue-tile-and-glass-brick bathroom adjoining it, she had taken for serious occupancy a spare bedroom, which, like Nancy’s and Kenyon’s rooms, was on the second floor.
The house—for the most part designed by Mr. Clutter, who thereby proved himself a sensible and sedate, if not notably decorative, architect—had been built in 1948 for forty thousand dollars. (The resale value was now sixty thousand dollars.) Situated at the end of a long, lanelike driveway shaded by rows of Chinese elms, the handsome white house, standing on an ample lawn of groomed Bermuda grass, impressed Holcomb; it was a place people pointed out. As for the interior, there were spongy displays of liver-colored carpet intermittently abolishing the glare of varnished, resounding floors; an immense modernistic living-room couch covered in nubby fabric interwoven with glittery strands of silver metal; a breakfast alcove featuring a banquette upholstered in blue-and-white plastic. This sort of furnishing was what Mr. and Mrs. Clutter liked, as did the majority of their acquaintances, whose homes, by and large, were similarly furnished.
Other than a housekeeper who came in on weekdays, the Clutters employed no household help, so since his wife’s illness and the departure of the elder daughters Mr. Clutter had of necessity learned to cook; either he or Nancy, but principally Nancy, prepared the family meals. Mr. Clutter enjoyed the chore, and was excellent at it—no woman in Kansas baked a better loaf of salt-rising bread, and his celebrated coconut cookies were the first item to go at charity cake sales—but he was not a hearty eater; unlike his fellow-ranchers, he even preferred Spartan breakfasts. That morning, an apple and a glass of milk were enough for him; because he touched neither coffee nor tea, he was accustomed to begin the day on a cold stomach. The truth was he opposed all stimulants, however gentle. He did not smoke, and of course he did not drink; indeed, he had never tasted spirits, and was inclined to avoid people who had—a circumstance that did not shrink his social circle as much as might be supposed, for the center of that circle was supplied by the members of Garden City’s First Methodist Church, a congregation totalling seventeen hundred, most of whom were as abstemious as Mr. Clutter could desire. While he was careful to avoid making a nuisance of his views, to adopt outside his realm an externally uncensoring manner, he enforced them within his family and among the employees at River Valley Farm. “Are you a drinking man?” was the first question he asked a job applicant, and even though the fellow gave a negative answer, he still must sign a work contract containing a clause that declared the agreement instantly void if the employee should be discovered “harboring alcohol.” A friend—an old pioneer rancher, Mr. Lynn Russell—had once told him, “You’ve got no mercy. I swear, Herb, if you caught a hired man drinking, out he’d go. And you wouldn’t care if his family was starving.” It was perhaps the only criticism ever made of Mr. Clutter as an employer. Otherwise, he was known for his equanimity, his charitableness, and the fact that he paid good wages and distributed frequent bonuses; the men who worked for him—and there were sometimes as many as eighteen—had small reason to complain.
After drinking the glass of milk and putting on a fleece-lined cap, Mr. Clutter carried his apple with him when he went outdoors to examine the morning. It was ideal apple-eating weather; the whitest sunlight descended from the purest sky, and an easterly wind rustled, without ripping loose, the last of the leaves on the Chinese elms. Autumn rewards western Kansas for the evils that the remaining seasons impose: winter’s rough Colorado winds and hip-high, sheep-slaughtering snows; the slushes and the strange land fogs of spring; and summer, when even crows seek the puny shade, and the tawny infinitude of wheatstalks bristle, blaze. At last, after September, another weather arrives, an Indian summer that occasionally endures until Christmas. As Mr. Clutter contemplated this superior specimen of the season, he was joined by a part-collie mongrel, Teddy, and together they ambled off toward the livestock corral, which was adjacent to one of three barns on the premises.
One of these barns was a mammoth Quonset hut; it brimmed with grain—a dark, pungent hill of milo grain worth considerable money: a hundred thousand dollars. That figure alone represented an almost four-thousand-per-cent advance over Mr. Clutter’s entire income in 1934—the year he married Bonnie Fox and moved with her from their home town of Rozel, Kansas, to Garden City, where he had found work as an assistant to the Finney County Agricultural Agent. Typically, it took him just seven months to be promoted; that is, to install himself in the head man’s job. The years during which he held the post—1935 to 1939—encompassed the dustiest, the down-and-outest the region had known since white men settled there, and young Herb Clutter, having, as he did, a brain expertly racing with the newest in streamlined agricultural practices, was quite qualified to serve as middleman between the government and the despondent farm ranchers; these men could well use the optimism and the educated instruction of a likable young fellow who seemed to know his business. All the same, he was not doing what he wanted to do; the son of a farmer, he had from the beginning aimed at operating a property of his own. Facing up to it, he resigned as County Agent after four years and, on land leased with borrowed money, created, in embryo, River Valley Farm (a name justified by the Arkansas River’s meandering presence but not, certainly, by any evidence of valley). It was an endeavor that several Finney County conservatives watched with show-us amusement—old-timers who had been fond of baiting the youthful County Agent on the subject of his university notions: “That’s fine, Herb. You always know what’s best to do on the other fellow’s land. Plant this. Terrace that. But you might say a sight different if the place was your own.” They were mistaken; the upstart’s experiments succeeded—partly because, in the beginning years, he labored eighteen hours a day. Setbacks occurred—twice the wheat crop failed, and one winter he lost several hundred head of sheep in a blizzard—but after a decade Mr. Clutter’s domain consisted of over eight hundred acres owned outright and three thousand more worked on a rental basis—and that, as his colleagues admitted, was “a pretty good spread.” Wheat, maize seed, certified grass seed—these were the crops the farm’s prosperity depended upon. Animals were also important—sheep, and especially cattle. A herd of several hundred Hereford stocker cattle bore the Clutter brand, though one would not have suspected it from the scant contents of the livestock corral, which was reserved for ailing steers, a few milking cows, Nancy’s cats, and Babe, the family favorite—an old fat work horse who never objected to lumbering about with three and four children astride her broad back.
Mr. Clutter now fed Babe the core of his apple, calling good morning to a man raking debris inside the corral—Alfred Stoecklein, the sole resident employee. The Stoeckleins and their three children lived in a house not a hundred yards from the main house; except for them, the Clutters had no neighbors within half a mile. A long-faced man with long brown teeth, Mr. Stoecklein asked, “Have you some particular work in mind today? Cause we got a sick-un. The baby. Me and Missis been up and down with her most the night. I been thinking to carry her to doctor.” And Mr. Clutter, expressing sympathy, said by all means to take the morning off, and if there was any way he or his wife could help, please let them know. Then, with the dog running ahead of him, he moved southward toward the fields, lion-colored now, luminously golden with after-harvest stubble.
The river lay in this direction; near its bank stood a grove of fruit trees—peach, pear, cherry, and apple. Fifty years ago, according to native memory, it would have taken a lumberjack ten minutes to axe all the trees in western Kansas. Even today, only cottonwoods and Chinese elms—perennials with a cactuslike indifference to thirst—are commonly planted. However, as Mr. Clutter often remarked, “an inch more of rain, and this country would be paradise—Eden on earth.” The little collection of fruit-bearers growing by the river was his attempt to contrive, rain or no, a patch of the paradise, the green, apple-scented Eden, he envisioned. His wife once said, “My husband cares more for those trees than he does for his children,” and everyone in Holcomb recalled the day a small disabled plane crashed into the peach trees: “Herb was fit to be tied! Why, the propeller hadn’t stopped turning before he’d slapped a lawsuit on the pilot.”
Passing through the orchard, Mr. Clutter proceeded along beside the river, which was shallow here and strewn with islands—midstream beaches of soft sand, to which, on Sundays gone by, hot-weather Sabbaths when Bonnie had still “felt up to things,” picnic baskets had been carted, family afternoons whiled away waiting for a twitch at the end of a trout line. Mr. Clutter seldom encountered trespassers on his property; a mile from the highway, and arrived at by obscure roads, it was not a place that strangers came upon by chance. Now, suddenly, a whole party of them appeared and Teddy rushed forward roaring out a challenge. But it was odd about Teddy. Though he was a good sentry, alert, ever ready to raise Cain, his valor had one flaw: let him glimpse a gun, as he did now—for the intruders were armed—and his head dropped, his tail turned in. No one understood why, for no one knew his history, other than that he was a vagabond that Kenyon had adopted years ago. The visitors proved to be five pheasant hunters from Oklahoma. The pheasant season in Kansas, a famed November event, lures hordes of sportsmen from adjoining states, and during the past week plaid-hatted regiments had paraded across the autumnal expanses flushing and felling with rounds of bird shot great coppery flights of the grain-fattened birds. By custom, the hunters, if they are not invited guests, are supposed to pay the landowner a fee for letting them pursue their quarry on his premises, but when the Oklahomans offered to hire hunting rights, Mr. Clutter was amused. “I’m not as poor as I look. Go ahead, get all you can,” he said. Then, touching the brim of his cap, he headed for home and the day’s work, unaware that it would be his last.
Like Mr. Clutter, the young man breakfasting in a café called the Little Jewel never drank coffee. He preferred root beer. Three aspirin, cold root beer, and a chain of Pall Mall cigarettes—that was his notion of a proper “chow-down.” Sipping and smoking, he studied a map spread on the counter before him—a Phillips 66 map of Mexico—but it was difficult to concentrate, for he was expecting a friend, and the friend was late. He looked out a window at the silent small-town street, a street he had never seen until yesterday. Still no sign of Dick. But he was sure to show up; after all, the purpose of their meeting was Dick’s idea, his “score.” And when it was settled—Mexico. The map was ragged, so thumbed that it had grown as supple as a piece of chamois. Around the corner, in his room at the hotel where he was staying, were hundreds more like it—worn maps of every state in the Union, every Canadian province, every South American country—for the young man was an incessant conceiver of voyages, not a few of which he had actually taken: to Alaska, to Hawaii and Japan, to Hong Kong. Now, thanks to a letter, an invitation to a “score,” here he was with all his worldly belongings: one cardboard suitcase, a guitar, and two big boxes of books and maps and songs, poems and old letters, weighing a quarter of a ton. (Dick’s face when he saw those boxes! “Christ, Perry. You carry that junk everywhere? “ And Perry had said, “What junk? One of them books cost me thirty bucks.”) Here he was in little Olathe, Kansas. Kind of funny, if you thought about it; imagine being back in Kansas, when only four months ago he had sworn, first to the state Parole Board, then to himself, that he would never set foot within its boundaries again. Well, it wasn’t for long.
Ink-circled names populated the map: cozumel, an island off the coast of Yucatán where, so he had read in a men’s magazine, you could “shed your clothes, put on a relaxed grin, live like a Rajah, and have all the women you want for $50-a-month!” From the same article he had memorized other appealing statements: “Cozumel is a holdout against social, economic, and political pressure. No official pushes any private person around on this island,” and “Every year flights of parrots come over from the mainland to lay their eggs.” acapulco connoted deep-sea fishing, casinos, anxious rich women, and sierra madre meant gold, meant “Treasure of Sierra Madre,” a movie he had seen eight times. (It was Bogart’s best picture, but the old guy who played the prospector, the one who reminded Perry of his father, was terrific, too. Walter Huston. Yes, and what he had told Dick was true: He did know the ins and outs of hunting gold, having been taught them by his father, who was a professional prospector. So why shouldn’t they, the two of them, buy a pair of packhorses and try their luck in the Sierra Madre? But Dick, the practical Dick, had said, “Whoa, honey, whoa. I seen that show. Ends up everybody nuts. On account of fever and bloodsuckers, mean conditions all around. Then, when they got the gold—remember, a big wind came along and blew it all away?”) Perry folded the map. He paid for the root beer and stood up. Sitting, he had seemed a more than normal-sized man, a powerful man, with the shoulders, the arms, the thick, crouching torso of a weight lifter. Weight lifting was, in fact, his hobby. But some sections of him were not in proportion to others. His tiny feet, encased in short black boots with steel buckles, would have neatly fitted into a delicate lady’s dancing slippers; when he stood up, he was no taller than a twelve-year-old child, and suddenly looked, strutting on stunted legs that seemed grotesquely inadequate to the grown-up bulk they supported, not like a well-built truck driver but like a retired jockey, overblown and muscle-bound.
Outside the café, Perry stationed himself in the sun. It was a quarter to nine, and Dick was a half hour late; however, if Dick had not hammered home the every-minute importance of the next twenty-four hours, he would not have noticed it. Time rarely weighed upon him, for he had many methods of passing it—among them mirror gazing. Dick had once observed, “Every time you see a mirror you go into a trance, like. Like you was looking at some gorgeous woman. I mean, my God, don’t you ever get tired?” Far from it; his own face enthralled him. Each angle of it induced a different impression. It was a changeling’s face, and mirror-guided experiments had taught him how to ring the changes, how to look now ominous, now impish, now soulful; a tilt of the head, a twist of the lips, and the corrupt gypsy became the gentle romantic. His mother had been a full-blooded Cherokee; it was from her that he had inherited his coloring—the iodine skin, the dark, moist eyes, the black, brilliantined hair, which was plentiful enough to provide him with sideburns and a slippery spray of bangs. His mother’s donation was apparent; that of his father, a freckled, ginger-haired Irishman, was less so. It was as though the Indian blood had routed every trace of the Celtic strain. Still, pink lips and a perky nose confirmed its presence, as did a quality of roguish animation, of uppity Irish egotism, that often activated the Cherokee mask, and took control completely when he played the guitar and sang. Singing, and the thought of doing so in front of an audience, was another mesmeric way of whittling hours. He always used the same mental scenery—a night club in Las Vegas, which happened to be his home town. It was an elegant room filled with celebrities excitedly focussed on the sensational new star rendering his famous, backed-by-violins version of “I’ll Be Seeing You” and encoring with his latest self-composed ballad:
Every April flights of parrotsFly overhead, red and green,Green and tangerine.I see them fly, I hear them highSinging parrots bringing April spring. . . .
(Dick, on first hearing this song, had commented, “Parrots don’t sing. Talk, maybe. Holler. But they sure as hell don’t sing.” Of course, Dick was very literal-minded, very—he had no understanding of music, poetry—and yet, when you got right down to it, Dick’s literalness, his pragmatic approach to every subject, was the primary reason Perry had been attracted to him, for it made Dick seem, compared to himself, so authentically tough, invulnerable, “totally masculine.”)
Nevertheless, pleasant as this Las Vegas reverie was, it paled beside another of his visions. Since childhood, for more than half his thirty-one years, he had been sending off for literature (“fortunes in diving! Train at Home in Your Spare Time. Make Big Money Fast in Skin and Lung Diving. free booklets . . .”), answering advertisements (“sunken treasure! Fifty Genuine Maps! Amazing Offer. . .”), that stoked a longing to realize an adventure his imagination swiftly and over and over enabled him to experience: the dream of drifting downward through strange waters, of plunging toward a green sea-dusk, sliding past the scaly, savage-eyed protectors of a ship’s hulk that loomed ahead, a Spanish galleon, a drowned cargo of diamonds and pearls, heaping caskets of gold. A car horn honked. At last—Dick.
“Good grief, Kenyon! I hear you.”
As usual, the devil was in Kenyon. His shouts kept coming up the stairs: “Nancy! Telephone!”
Barefoot, pajama-clad, Nancy scampered down the stairs. There were two telephones in the house—one in the room her father used as an office, another in the kitchen. She picked up the kitchen extension: “Hello? Oh, yes, good morning, Mrs. Katz.”
And Mrs. Clarence Katz, the wife of a farmer who lived on the highway, said, “Itold your daddy not to wake you up. I said Nancy must be tired after all that wonderful acting she did last night. You were lovely, dear. Those white ribbons in your hair! And that part when you thought Tom Sawyer was dead—you had real tears in your eyes. Good as anything on TV. But your daddy said it was time you got up; well, it is going on for nine. Now, what I wanted, dear—my little girl, my little Jolene, she’s just dying to bake a cherry pie, and, seeing how you’re a champion cherry-pie maker, always winning prizes, I wondered could I bring her over there this morning and you show her?”
Normally, Nancy would willingly have taught Jolene to prepare an entire turkey dinner; she felt it her duty to be available when younger girls came to her wanting help with their cooking, their sewing, or their music lessons—or, as often happened, to confide. Where she found the time, and still managed to “practically run that big house” and be a straight-A student, the president of her class, a leader in the 4-H program and the Young Methodists League, a skilled rider, an excellent musician (piano, clarinet), an annual winner at the county fair (pastry, preserves, needlework, flower arrangement)—how a girl not yet seventeen could haul such a wagonload, and do so without “brag,” with, rather, merely a radiant jauntiness, was an enigma the community pondered, and solved by saying, “She’s got character. Gets it from her old man.” Certainly her strongest trait, the talent that gave support to all the others, derived from her father: a fine-honed sense of organization. Each moment was assigned; she knew precisely, at any hour, what she would be doing, how long it would require. And that was the trouble with today: she had overscheduled it. She had committed herself to helping another neighbor’s child, Roxie Lee Smith, with a trumpet solo that Roxie Lee planned to play at a school concert; had promised to run three complicated errands for her mother; and had arranged to attend a 4-H meeting in Garden City with her father. And then there was lunch to make, and, after lunch, work to be done on the bridesmaids’ dresses for Beverly’s wedding, which she had designed and was sewing herself. As matters stood, there was no room for Jolene’s cherry-pie lesson. Unless something could be cancelled.
“Mrs. Katz? Will you hold the line a moment, please?”
She walked the length of the house to her father’s office. The office, which had an outside entrance for ordinary visitors, was separated from the living room by a sliding door; though Mr. Clutter occasionally shared the office with Gerald Van Vleet, a young man who assisted him with the management of the farm, it was fundamentally his retreat—an orderly sanctuary, panelled in walnut veneer, where, surrounded by weather barometers, rain charts, a pair of binoculars, he sat like a captain in his cabin, a navigator piloting River Valley’s sometimes risky passage through the seasons.
“Never mind,” he said, responding to Nancy’s problem. “Skip 4-H. I’ll take Kenyon instead.”
And so, lifting the office phone, Nancy told Mrs. Katz yes, fine, bring Jolene right on over. But she hung up with a frown. “It’s so peculiar,” she said as she looked around the room and saw in it her father helping Kenyon add a column of figures, and, at his desk by the window, Mr. Van Vleet, who had a kind of brooding, rugged good looks that led her to call him Heathcliff behind his back. “But I keep smelling cigarette smoke.’
“On your breath?” inquired Kenyon.
“No, funny one. Yours.”
That quieted him, for Kenyon, as he knew she knew, did once in a while sneak a puff—but, then, so did Nancy.
Mr. Clutter clapped his hands. “That’s all. This is an office.”
Now, upstairs, she changed into faded Levis and a green sweater, and fastened round her wrist her third-most-valued belonging, a gold watch; her closest cat friend, Evinrude, ranked above it, and surmounting even Evinrude was Bobby’s signet ring, the cumbersome proof of her “going-steady” status, which she wore (when she wore it; the least flareup and off it came) on a thumb, for even with the use of adhesive tape its man-size girth could not be made to fit a more suitable finger. Nancy was a pretty girl, lean and boyishly agile, and the prettiest things about her were her short-bobbed, shining chestnut hair (brushed a hundred strokes each morning, the same number at night), and her soap-polished complexion, still faintly freckled and rose-brown from last summer’s sun. But it was her eyes, wide apart, darkly translucent, like ale held to the light, that made her immediately likable, that at once announced her lack of suspicion, her considered and yet so easily triggered kindliness.
“Nancy!” Kenyon called. “Susan on the phone.”
Susan Kidwell, her confidante. Again she answered in the kitchen.
“Tell,” said Susan, who invariably launched a telephone session with this command. “And, to begin, tell why you were flirting with Jerry Roth.” Like Bobby, Jerry Roth was a school basketball star.
“Last night? Good grief, I wasn’t flirting. You mean because we were holding hands? He just came backstage during the show. And I was so nervous. So he held my hand. To give me courage.”
“Very sweet. Then what?”
“Bobby took me to the spook movie. And we held hands.”
“Was it scary? Not Bobby. The movie.
“He didn’t think so; he just laughed. But you know me. Boo!—and I fall off the seat.”
“What are you eating?”
“I know—your fingernails,” said Susan, guessing correctly. Much as Nancy tried, she could not break the habit of nibbling her nails, and, whenever she was troubled, chewing them right to the quick. “Tell. Something wrong?”
“Nancy. C’est moi. . . . ” Susan was studying French.
“Well—Daddy. He’s been in an awful mood the last three weeks. Awful. At least, around me. And when I got home last night he started that again.”
“That” needed no amplification; it was a subject that the two friends had discussed completely, and upon which they agreed. Susan, summarizing the problem from Nancy’s viewpoint, had once said, “You love Bobby now, and you need him. But, deep down, even Bobby knows there isn’t any future in it. Later on, when we go off to Manhattan, everything will seem a new world.” Kansas State University is in Manhattan, and the two girls planned to enroll there as art students, and to room together. “Everything will change, whether you want it to or not. But you can’t change it now, living here in Holcomb, seeing Bobby every day, sitting in the same classes—and there’s no reason to. Because you and Bobby are a very happy thing. And it will be something happy to think back about—if you’re left alone. Can’t you make your father understand that?” No, she could not. “Because,” as she explained it to Susan, “whenever I start to say something, he looks at me as though I must not love him. Or as though I loved him less. And suddenly I’m tongue-tied; I just want to be his daughter, and do as he wishes.” To this Susan had no reply; it embodied emotions, a relationship, beyond her experience. She lived alone with her mother, who taught music at the Holcomb School, and she did not remember her own father very clearly, for years ago, in their native California, Mr. Kidwell had one day left home and not come back.
“And, anyway,” Nancy continued now, “I’m not sure it’s me that’s making him grouchy. Something else—he’s really worried about something.”
No other friend of Nancy’s would have presumed to make such a suggestion. Susan, however, was privileged. When she had first appeared in Holcomb, a melancholy, imaginative child, willowy and wan and sensitive, then eight, a year younger than Nancy, the Clutters had so ardently adopted her that the fatherless little girl from California soon came to seem a member of the family. For seven years, the two friends had been inseparable, each, by virtue of the rarity of similar and equal sensibilities, irreplaceable to the other. But then, this past September, Susan had transferred from the local school to the vaster, supposedly superior one in Garden City. It was the usual procedure for Holcomb students who intended going on to college, but Mr. Clutter, a diehard community booster, considered such defections an affront to community spirit; the Holcomb School was good enough for his children, and there they would remain. Thus, the girls were no longer always together, and Nancy deeply felt the daytime absence of her friend, the one person with whom she need be neither brave nor reticent.
“Well. But we’re all so happy about Mother—you heard the wonderful news.” Then Nancy said, “Listen,” and hesitated, as if summoning nerve to make an outrageous remark. “Why do I keep smelling smoke? Honestly, I think I’m losing my mind. I get into the car, I walk into a room, and it’s as though somebody had just been there, smoking a cigarette. It isn’t Mother, it can’t be Kenyon. Kenyon wouldn’t dare. . . .”
Nor, very likely, would any visitor to the Clutter home, which was pointedly devoid of ashtrays. Slowly, Susan grasped the implication, but it was ludicrous. Regardless of what his private anxieties might be, she could not believe that Mr. Clutter was finding secret solace in tobacco. Before she could ask if this was really what Nancy meant, Nancy cut her off: “Sorry, Susie. I’ve got to go. Mrs. Katz is here.”
Dick was driving a black 1949 Chevrolet sedan. As Perry got in, he checked the back seat to see if his guitar was safely there; the previous night, after playing for a party of Dick’s friends, he had forgotten and left it in the car. It was an old Gibson guitar, sandpapered and waxed to a honey-yellow finish. Another sort of instrument lay beside it—a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun, brand-new, blue-barrelled, and with a sportsman’s scene of pheasants in flight etched along the stock. A flashlight, a fishing knife, a pair of leather gloves, and a hunting vest packed with shells contributed further atmosphere to this curious still-life.
“You wearing that?” Perry asked, indicating the vest.
Dick rapped his knuckles against the windshield. “Knock, knock. Excuse me, sir. We’ve been out hunting and lost our way. If we could use the phone . . .”
“Si, Señor. Yo comprendo.”
“A cinch,” said Dick. “I promise you, honey, we’ll blast hair all over them walls.”
“ ‘Those’ walls,” said Perry. A dictionary buff, a devotee of obscure words, he had been intent on improving his companion’s grammar and expanding his vocabulary ever since they had celled together at Kansas State Penitentiary. Far from resenting these lessons, the pupil, to please his tutor, once composed a sheaf of poems, and though the verses were very obscene, Perry, who thought them nevertheless hilarious, had had the manuscript leather bound in a prison shop and its title, “Dirty Jokes,” stamped in gold.
Dick was wearing a blue jumper suit; lettering stitched across the back of it advertised “bob sands body shop.” He and Perry drove along the main street of Olathe until they arrived at the Bob Sands establishment, an auto-repair garage, where Dick had been employed since his release from the penitentiary, in mid-August. A capable mechanic, he earned sixty dollars a week. He deserved no salary for the work he planned to do this morning, but Mr. Sands, who left him in charge on Saturdays, would never know he had paid his hireling to overhaul his own car. With Perry assisting him, he went to work. They changed the oil, adjusted the clutch, recharged the battery, replaced a throw-out bearing, and put new tires on the rear wheels—all necessary undertakings, for between today and tomorrow the aged Chevrolet was expected to perform punishing feats.
“Because the old man was around,” said Dick, answering Perry, who wanted to know why he had been late in meeting him at the Little Jewel. “I didn’t want him to see me taking the gun out of the house. Christ, then he would have knowed I wasn’t telling the truth.”
“ ‘Known.’ But what did you say? Finally?”
“Like we said. I said we’d be gone overnight—said we was going to visit your sister in Fort Scott. On account of she was holding money for you. Fifteen hundred dollars.” Perry had a sister, and had once had two, but the surviving one did not live in Fort Scott, a Kansas town eighty-five miles from Olathe; in fact, he was uncertain of her present address.
“And was he sore?”
“Why should he be sore?”
“Because he hates me,” said Perry, whose voice was both gentle and prim—a voice that, though soft, manufactured each word exactly, ejected it like a smoke ring issuing from a parson’s mouth. “So does your mother. I could see—the ineffable way they looked at me.”
Dick shrugged. “Nothing to do with you. As such. It’s just they don’t like me seeing anybody from The Walls.” Twice married, twice divorced, now twenty-eight and the father of three boys, Dick had received his parole on the condition that he reside with his parents; the family, which included a younger brother, lived on a small farm near Olathe. “Anybody wearing the fraternity pin,” he added, and touched a blue dot tattooed under his left eye—an insigne, a visible password, by which certain former prison inmates could identify him.
“I understand,” said Perry. “I sympathize with that. They’re good people. She’s a real sweet person, your mother.”
Dick nodded; he thought so, too.
At noon, they put down their tools, and Dick, racing the engine, listening to the consistent hum, was satisfied that a thorough job had been done.
Nancy and her protégée, Jolene Katz, were also satisfied with their morning’s work; indeed, the latter, a thin thirteen-year-old, was agog with pride. For the longest while, she stared at the blue-ribbon winner, the oven-hot cherries simmering under the crisp lattice crust, and then she was overcome, and, hugging Nancy, asked, “Honest, did I really make it myself?” Nancy laughed, returned the embrace, and assured her that she had—with a little help.
Jolene urged that they sample the pie at once—no nonsense about leaving it to cool. “Please, let’s both have a piece. And you, too,” she said to Mrs. Clutter, who had come into the kitchen. Mrs. Clutter smiled—attempted to; her head ached—and said thank you, but she hadn’t the appetite. As for Nancy, she hadn’t the time; Roxie Lee Smith, and Roxie Lee’s trumpet solo, awaited her, and afterward those errands for her mother, one of which concerned a bridal shower that some Garden City girls were organizing for Beverly, and another the Thanksgiving gala.
“You go, dear, I’ll keep Jolene company until her mother comes for her,” Mrs. Clutter said, and then, addressing the child with unconquerable timidity, added, “If Jolene doesn’t mind keeping me company.” As a girl, she had won an elocution prize; maturity, it seemed, had reduced her voice to a single tone, that of apology, and her personality to a series of gestures blurred by the fear that she might give offense, in some way displease. “I hope you understand,” she continued, after her daughter’s departure. “I hope you won’t think Nancy rude?”
“Goodness, no. I just love her to death. Well, everybody does. There isn’t anybody like Nancy. Do you know what Mrs. Stringer says?” said Jolene, naming her home-economics teacher. “One day she told the class, ‘Nancy Clutter is always in a hurry, but she always has time. And that’s one definition of a lady.’ “
“Yes,” replied Mrs. Clutter. “All my children are very efficient. They don’t need me.”
Jolene had never before been alone with Nancy’s “strange” mother, but despite discussions she had heard, she felt much at ease, for Mrs. Clutter, though unrelaxed herself, had a relaxing quality, as is generally true of defenseless persons who present no threat; even in Jolene, a very childlike child, Mrs. Clutter’s heart-shaped, missionary’s face, her look of helpless, homespun ethereality aroused protective compassion. But to think that she was Nancy’s mother! An aunt—that seemed possible: a visiting spinster aunt, slightly odd, but nice.
“No, they don’t need me,” she repeated, pouring herself a cup of coffee. Though all the other members of the family observed her husband’s boycott of this beverage, she drank two cups every morning and, often as not, ate nothing else the rest of the day. She weighed ninety-eight pounds; rings—a wedding hand and one set with a diamond modest to the point of meekness—wobbled on one of her bony hands.
Jolene cut a piece of pie. “Boy!” she said, wolfing it down, “I’m going to make one of these every day seven days a week.”
“Well, you have all those little brothers, and boys can eat a lot of pie. Mr. Clutter and Kenyon, I know they never get tired of them. But the cook does—Nancy just turns up her nose. It’ll be the same with you. No, no—why do I say that?” Mrs. Clutter, who wore rimless glasses, removed them and pressed her eyes. “Forgive me, dear. I’m sure you’ll never know what it is to be tired. I’m sure you’ll always be happy. . . . ”
Jolene was silent. The note of panic in Mrs. Clutter’s voice had caused her to have a shift of feeling; Jolene was confused, and wished that her mother, who had promised to call hack for her at eleven, would come.
Presently, more calmly, Mrs. Clutter asked, “Do you like miniature things? Tiny things?” and invited Jolene into the dining room to inspect the shelves of a whatnot on which were arranged assorted Lilliputian gewgaws—scissors, thimbles, crystal flower baskets, toy figurines, forks and knives: “I’ve had some of these since I was a child. Daddy and Mama—all of us—spent part of most years in California. By the ocean. And there was a shop that sold such precious little things. These cups.” A set of doll-house teacups, anchored to a diminutive tray, trembled in the palm of her hand. “Daddy gave them to me; I had a lovely childhood.”
The only daughter of a prosperous wheat grower named Fox, the adored sister of three older brothers, she had been not spoiled but spared, led to suppose that life was a sequence of agreeable events—Kansas autumns, California summers, a round of teacup gifts. When she was eighteen, inflamed by a biography of Florence Nightingale, she enrolled as a student nurse at St. Rose’s Hospital in Great Bend, Kansas. She was not meant to be a nurse, and after two years she confessed it: a hospital’s realities—scenes, odors—sickened her. Yet to this day she regretted not having completed the course and received her diploma—“just to prove,” as she had told a friend, “that I once succeeded at something.” Instead, she had met and married Herb, a college classmate of her oldest brother, Glenn; actually, since the two families lived within twenty miles of each other, she had long known him by sight, but the Clutters, plain farm people, were not on visiting terms with the well-to-do and cultivated Foxes. However, Herb was handsome, he was pious, he was strong-willed, he wanted her—and she was in love.
“Mr. Clutter travels a great deal,” she said to Jolene. “Oh, he’s always headed somewhere. Washington and Chicago and Oklahoma and Kansas City—sometimes it seems like he’s never home. But wherever he goes, he remembers how I dote on tiny things.” She unfolded a little paper fan. “He brought me this from San Francisco. It only cost a penny. But isn’t it pretty?”
The second year of the marriage, Eveanna was born, and, three years later, Beverly; after each confinement, the young mother had experienced an inexplicable despondency—seizures of grief that sent her wandering from room to room in a hand-wringing daze. Between the births of Beverly and Nancy, three more years elapsed, and these were the years of the Sunday picnics and of summer excursions to Colorado, the years when she really ran her own home and was the happy center of it. But with Nancy, and then with Kenyon, the pattern of postnatal depression repeated itself and, following the birth of her son, the mood of misery that descended never altogether lifted; it lingered like a cloud that might rain or might not. She knew “good days,” and occasionally they accumulated into weeks, months, but even on the best of the good days, those days when she was otherwise her “old self,” the affectionate and charming Bonnie her friends cherished, she could not summon the social vitality her husband’s pyramiding activities required. He was a “joiner,” a “born leader”; she was not, and stopped attempting to be. And so, along paths bordered by tender regard, by fidelity, they began to go their semi-separate ways—his a public route, a march of satisfying conquests, and hers a private one that eventually wound through hospital corridors. But she was not without hope. Trust in God sustained her, and from time to time secular sources supplemented her faith in His forthcoming mercy; she read of a miracle medicine, heard of a new therapy, or, as most recently, decided to believe that a “pinched nerve” was to blame.
“Little things really belong to you,” she said, folding the fan. “They don’t have to be left behind. You can carry them in a shoebox.”
“Carry them where to? “
“Why, wherever you go. You might be gone for a long time.”
Some years earlier, Mrs. Clutter had travelled to Wichita for two weeks of treatment and remained two months. On the advice of a doctor, who had thought the experience would aid her to regain “a sense of adequacy and usefulness,” she had taken an apartment, then found a job—as a file clerk at the Y.W.C.A. Her husband, entirely sympathetic, had encouraged the adventure, but she had liked it too well, so much that it seemed to her unchristian, and the sense of guilt she in consequence developed ultimately outweighed the experiment’s therapeutic value.
“Or you might never go home. And—It’s important always to have with you something of your own. That’s really yours.”
The doorbell rang. It was Jolene’s mother.
Mrs. Clutter said, “Goodbye, dear,” and pressed into Jolene’s hand the paper fan. “It’s only a penny thing—but it’s pretty.”
Afterward, Mrs. Clutter was alone in the house. Kenyon and Mr. Clutter had gone to Garden City; Gerald Van Vleet had left for the day; and the housekeeper, the blessed Mrs. Helm, to whom she could confide anything, did not come to work on Saturdays. She might as well go back to bed—the bed she so rarely abandoned that poor Mrs. Helm had to battle for the chance to change its linen twice a week.
There were four bedrooms on the second floor, and hers was the last at the end of a spacious hall, which was bare except for a baby crib that had been bought for the visits of her grandson. If cots were brought in and the hall was used as a dormitory, Mrs. Clutter estimated, the house could accommodate twenty guests during the Thanksgiving holidays; the others would have to lodge at motels or with neighbors. Among the Clutter kinfolk, the Thanksgiving get-together was an annual, turnabout to-do, and this year Herb was the appointed host, so it had to be done, but, coinciding, as it did, with the preparations for Beverly’s wedding, Mrs. Clutter despaired of surviving either project. Both involved the necessity of making decisions—a process she had always disliked, and had learned to dread, for when her husband was off on one of his business journeys she was continually expected, in his absence, to supply snap judgments concerning the affairs of the farm, and it was unendurable, a torment. What if she made a mistake? What if Herb should be displeased? Better to lock the bedroom door and pretend not to hear, or say, as she sometimes did, “I can’t. I don’t know. Please.”
The room she so seldom left was austere; had the bed been made, a visitor might have thought it permanently unoccupied. An oak bed, a walnut bureau, a bedside table—nothing else except lamps, one curtained window, and a picture of Jesus walking on the water. It was as though by keeping this room impersonal, by not importing her intimate belongings but leaving them mingled with those of her husband, she lessened the offense of not sharing his quarters. The only used drawer in the bureau contained a jar of Vick’s VapoRub, Kleenex, an electric heating pad, a number of white nightgowns, and white cotton socks. She always wore a pair of these socks to bed, for she was always cold. And, for the same reason, she habitually kept her windows closed. Summer before last, on a sweltering August Sunday, when she was secluded here, a difficult incident had taken place. There were guests that day, a party of friends who had been invited to the farm to pick mulberries, and among them was Wilma Kidwell, Susan’s mother. Like most of the people who were often entertained by the Clutters, Mrs. Kidwell accepted the absence of the hostess without comment, and assumed, as was the custom, that she was either “indisposed” or “away in Wichita.” In any event, when the hour came to go to the fruit orchard, Mrs. Kidwell declined; a city-bred woman, easily fatigued, she wished to remain indoors. Later, while she was awaiting the return of the mulberry pickers, she heard the sound of weeping, heartbroken, heartbreaking. “Bonnie?” she called, and ran up the stairs, ran down the hall to Bonnie’s door. When she opened it, the heat gathered inside the room was like a sudden, awful hand over her mouth; she hurried to open a window. “Don’t!” Bonnie cried. “I’m not hot. I’m cold. I’m freezing. Lord, Lord, Lord!” She flailed her arms. “Please, Lord, don’t let anybody see me this way.” Mrs. Kidwell sat down on the bed; she wanted to hold Bonnie in her arms, and eventually Bonnie let herself be held. “Wilma,” she said. “I’ve been listening to you, Wilma. All of you. Laughing. Having a good time. I’m missing out on everything. The best years, the children—everything. A little while, and even Kenyon will be grown up—a man. And how will he remember me? As a kind of ghost, Wilma.”
Now, on this final day of her life, Mrs. Clutter hung in the closet the calico house dress she had been wearing and put on one of her trailing nightgowns and a fresh set of white socks. Then, before retiring, she exchanged her ordinary glasses for a pair of reading spectacles. Though she subscribed to several periodicals (theLadies’ Home Journal, McCall’s, Reader’s Digest, and Together: Midmonth Magazine for Methodist Families), none of these rested on the bedside table—only a Bible. A bookmark lay between its pages, a stiff piece of watered silk upon which an admonition had been embroidered: “Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is.”
The two young men had little in common, but they did not realize it, for they shared a number of surface traits. Both, for example, were fastidious, very attentive to hygiene and the condition of their fingernails. After their grease-monkey morning, they spent the better part of an hour sprucing up in the lavatory of the garage. Dick stripped to his briefs was not quite the same as Dick fully clothed. In the latter state, he seemed a flimsy dingy-blond youth of medium height, fleshless and perhaps sunken-chested; disrobing revealed that he was nothing of the sort but, rather, an athlete constructed on a welterweight scale. The tattooed face of a cat, blue and grinning, covered his right hand; on one shoulder a blue rose blossomed. More markings, self-designed and self-executed, ornamented his arms and torso: the head of a dragon with a human skull between its open jaws; bosomy nudes; a gremlin brandishing a pitchfork; the word “peace” accompanied by a cross radiating, in the form of crude strokes, rays of holy light; and two sentimental concoctions—one a bouquet of flowers dedicated to “mother-dad,” the other a heart that celebrated the romance of “dick” and “carol,” the girl whom he had married when he was nineteen, and from whom he had separated six years later in order to “do the right thing” by another young lady, the mother of his youngest child. (“I have three boys who I will definitely take care of,” he had written in applying for parole. “My wife is remarried. I have been married twice, only I don’t want anything to do with my second wife.”)
But neither Dick’s physique nor the inky gallery adorning it made as remarkable an impression as his face, which seemed composed of mismatching parts. It was as though his head had been halved like an apple, then put together a fraction off center. Something of the kind had happened; the imperfectly aligned features were the outcome of a car collision in 1950—an accident that left his long-jawed and narrow face tilted, the left side rather lower than the right, with the result that the lips were slightly aslant, the nose was askew, and the eyes were not only situated at uneven levels but of uneven size, the left eye being truly serpentine, with a venomous, sickly-blue squint that, although it was involuntarily acquired, seemed nevertheless to warn of bitter sediment at the bottom of his nature. But Perry had told him, “The eye doesn’t matter. Because you have a wonderful smile. One of those smiles that really work.” It was true that the tightening action of a smile contracted his face into its correct alignment, and made it possible to discern a less unnerving personality—an American-style “good kid” with an outgrown crew cut, sane enough but not too bright. (Actually, he was very intelligent. An I.Q. test taken in prison gave him a rating of 130; the average subject, in prison or out, scores between 90 and 110.)
Perry, too, had been maimed, and his injuries, received in a motorcycle wreck, were severer than Dick’s; he had spent half a year in a State of Washington hospital and another six months on crutches, and though the accident occurred in 1952, his chunky, dwarfish legs, broken in five places and pitifully scarred, still pained him so severely that he had become an aspirin addict. “cookie,” the name of a nurse who had been friendly to him when he was hospitalized, was tattooed on his right biceps. While he had fewer tattoos than his companion, they were more elaborate—not the self-inflicted work of an amateur but epics of the art contrived by Honolulu and Yokohama masters. Blue-furred, orange-eyed, red-fanged, a tiger snarled upon his left biceps; a spitting snake, coiled around a dagger, slithered down his right forearm; and elsewhere skulls gleamed, a tombstone loomed, a chrysanthemum flourished.
“O.K., beauty. Put away the comb,” said Dick, dressed now and ready to go. Having discarded his work uniform, he wore gray chinos, a matching shirt, and, like Perry, ankle-high black boots. Perry, who could never find trousers to fit his truncated lower half, wore blue jeans rolled up at the bottom, and a leather windbreaker. Scrubbed, combed, as tidy as two dudes setting off on a double date, they went out to the car.
The distance between Olathe, a suburb of Kansas City, and Holcomb, which might be called a suburb of Garden City, is approximately four hundred miles.
A town of eleven thousand, Garden City began assembling its founders soon after the Civil War. An itinerant buffalo hunter, Mr. C. J. (Buffalo) Jones, had much to do with its subsequent expansion from a collection of huts and hitching posts into an opulent ranching center with razzle-dazzle saloons, an opera house, and the plushiest hotel anywhere between Kansas City and Denver—in brief, a specimen of frontier fanciness that rivalled a more famous settlement fifty miles east of it, Dodge City. Along with Buffalo Jones, who lost his money and then his mind (the last years of his life were spent haranguing street groups against the wanton extermination of the beasts he himself had so profitably slaughtered), the glamours of the past are today entombed. Some souvenirs exist; a moderately colorful row of commercial buildings is known as the Buffalo Block, and the once splendid Windsor Hotel, with its still splendid high-ceilinged salon and its atmosphere of spittoons and potted palms, endures amid the variety stores and supermarkets as a Main Street landmark—one comparatively unpatronized, for the Windsor’s dark, huge chambers and echoing hallways, evocative as they are, cannot compete with the air-conditioned amenities offered at the trim little Warren Hotel, or with the Wheat Lands Motel’s individual television sets and “Heated Swimming Pool.”
Anyone who has made the coast-to-coast journey across America, whether by train or by car, has probably passed through Garden City, but it is reasonable to assume that few travellers remember the event. It seems just another fair-sized town in the middle—almost the exact middle—of the continental United States. Not that the inhabitants would tolerate such an opinion—perhaps rightly. Though they may overstate the case (“Look all over the world, and you won’t find friendlier people or fresher air or sweeter drinking water,” and “I could go to Denver at triple the salary, but I’ve got five kids, and I figure there’s no better place to raise kids than right here. Swell schools with every kind of sport. We even have a junior college,” and “I came out here to practice law. A temporary thing, I never planned to stay. But when the chance came to move, I thought, Why go? What the hell for? Maybe it’s not New York—but who wants New York? Good neighbors, people who care about each other, that’s what counts. And everything else a decent man needs—we’ve got that, too. Beautiful churches. A golf course”), the newcomer to Garden City, once he has adjusted to the nightly after-eight silence of Main Street, discovers much to support the defensive boastings of the citizenry: a well-run public library, a competent daily newspaper, green-fawned and shady squares here and there, placid residential streets where animals and children are safe to run free, a big, rambling park complete with a small menagerie (“See the Polar Bears!” “See Pennie the Elephant!”), and a swimming pool that consumes several acres (“World’s Largestfree Swimpool!”). Such accessories, and the dust and the winds and the ever-calling train whistles, add up to a “home town” that is probably remembered with nostalgia by those who have left it, and that provides a sense of roots and contentment for those who have remained.
Without exception, Garden Citians deny that the population of the town can be socially graded (“No, sir. Nothing like that here. All equal, regardless of wealth, color, or creed. Everything the way it ought to be in a democracy; that’s us”), but, of course, class distinctions are as clearly observed, and as clearly observable, as in any other human hive. A hundred miles west and one would be out of the “Bible belt,” that gospel-haunted strip of American territory in which a man must, if only for business reasons, take his religion with the straightest of faces, but in Finney County one is still within the Bible-belt borders, and therefore a person’s church affiliation is the most important factor influencing his class status. A combination of Baptists, Methodists, and Roman Catholics would account for eighty per cent of the county’s devout, yet among the élite—the businessmen, bankers, lawyers, physicians, and more prominent ranchers who tenant the top drawer—Presbyterians and Episcopalians predominate. An occasional Methodist is welcomed, and once in a while a Democrat infiltrates, but on the whole the Establishment is composed of right-wing Republicans of the Presbyterian and Episcopalian faiths.
As an educated man successful in his profession, as an eminent Republican and church leader—even though of the Methodist church—Mr. Clutter was entitled to rank among the local patricians, but, just as he had never joined the Garden City Country Club, he had never sought to associate with the reigning coterie. Quite the contrary, for their pleasures were not his; he had no use for card games, golf, cocktails, or buffet suppers served at ten—or, indeed, for any pastime that he felt did not “accomplish something.” Which is why, instead of being part of a golfing foursome on this shining Saturday, Mr. Clutter was acting as chairman of a meeting of the Finney County 4-H Club. (4-H stands for “Head, Heart, Hands, Health,” and the club motto is “Learn to do by doing.” It is a national organization, with overseas branches, whose purpose is to help those living in rural areas—and the children particularly—develop practical abilities and moral character. Nancy and Kenyon had been conscientious members from the age of six.) Toward the end of the meeting, Mr. Clutter said, “Now I have something to say concerning one of our adult members.” His eyes singled out a chubby Japanese woman surrounded by four chubby Japanese children. “You all know Mrs. Hideo Ashida. Know how the Ashidas moved here from Colorado—started farming out to Holcomb two years ago. A fine family, the kind of people Holcomb’s lucky to have. As anyone will tell you. Anyone who has been sick and had Mrs. Ashida walk nobody can calculate how many miles to bring them some of the wonderful soups she makes. Or the flowers she grows where you wouldn’t expect a flower could grow. And last year at the county fair you will recall how much she contributed to the success of the 4-H exhibits. So I want to suggest we honor Mrs. Ashida with an award at our Achievement Banquet next Tuesday.”
Her children tugged at her, punched her; the oldest boy shouted, “Hey, Ma, that’s you!” But Mrs. Ashida was bashful; she rubbed her eyes with her baby-plump hands and laughed. She was the wife of a tenant farmer; the farm, an especially windswept and lonesome one, was halfway between Garden City and Holcomb. After 4-H meetings, Mr. Clutter usually drove the Ashidas home, and he did so today.
“Gosh, that was a jolt,” said Mrs. Ashida as they rolled along Route 50 in Mr. Clutter’s pickup truck. “Seems like I’m always thanking you, Herb. But thanks.” She had met him on her second day in Finney County; it was the day before Halloween, and he and Kenyon had come to call, bringing a load of pumpkins and squash. All through that first hard year, gifts had arrived of produce that the Ashidas had not yet planted—baskets of asparagus, lettuce. And Nancy often brought Babe by for the children to ride. “You know, in most ways, this is the best place we’ve ever lived. Hideo says the same. We sure hate to think about leaving. Starting all over again.”
“Leaving?” protested Mr. Clutter, and slowed the truck.
“Well, Herb. The farm here, the people we’re working for—Hideo thinks we could do better. Maybe in Nebraska. But nothing’s settled. It’s just talk so far.” Her hearty voice, always on the verge of laughter, made the melancholy news sound somehow cheerful, but, seeing that she had saddened Mr. Clutter, she turned to other matters. “Herb, give me a man’s opinion,” she said. “Me and the kids, we’ve been saving up, we want to give Hideo something on the grand side for Christmas. What he needs is teeth. Now, if your wife was to give you three gold teeth, would that strike you as a wrong kind of present? I mean asking a man to spend Christmas in the dentist’s chair? “
“You beat all. Don’t ever try to get away from here. We’ll hog-tie you,” said Mr. Clutter. “Yes, yes, by all means gold teeth. Was me, I’d be tickled.”
His reaction delighted Mrs. Ashida, for she knew he would not approve her plan unless he meant it; he was a gentleman. She had never known him to “act the squire,” or to take advantage or break a promise. She ventured to obtain a promise now. “Look, Herb. At the banquet—no speeches, huh? Not for me. You, you’re different. The way you can stand up and talk to hundreds of people. Thousands. And be so easy—convince anybody about whatever. Just nothing scares you,” she said, commenting upon a generally recognized quality of Mr. Clutter’s: a fearless self-assurance that set him apart, and, while it created respect, also limited the affections of others a little. “I can’t imagine you afraid. No matter what happened, you’d talk your way out of it.”
By midafternoon, the black Chevrolet had reached Emporia, Kansas—a large town, almost a city, and a safe place, so the occupants of the car had decided, to do a bit of shopping. They parked on a side street, then wandered about until a suitably crowded variety store presented itself.
The first purchase was a pair of rubber gloves; these were for Perry, who, unlike Dick, had neglected to bring old gloves of his own.
They moved on to a counter displaying women’s hosiery. After a spell of indecisive quibbling, Perry said, “I’m for it.”
Dick was not. “What about my eye? They’re all too light-colored to hide that.”
“Miss,” said Perry, attracting a salesgirl’s attention. “You got any black stockings?” When she told him no, he proposed that they try another store. “Black’s foolproof.”
But Dick had made up his mind: stockings of any shade were unnecessary, an encumbrance, a useless expense (“I’ve already invested enough money in this operation”), and, after all, anyone they encountered would not live to bear witness. “No witnesses,” he reminded Perry, for what seemed to Perry the millionth time. It rankled in him, the way Dick mouthed those two words, as though they solved every problem; it was stupid not to admit that there might be a witness they hadn’t seen. “The ineffable happens, things do take a turn,” he said. But Dick, smiling boastfully, boyishly, did not agree: “Get the bubbles out of your blood. Nothing can go wrong.” No. Because the plan was Dick’s, and, from first footfall to final silence, flawlessly devised.
Next, they were interested in rope. Perry studied the stock, tested it. Having once served in the merchant marine, he understood rope and was clever with knots. He chose a white nylon cord, as strong as wire and not much thicker. They discussed how many yards of it they required. The question irritated Dick, for it was part of a greater quandary, and he could not, despite the alleged perfection of his over-all design, be certain of the answer. Eventually, he said, “Christ, how the hell should I know?”
“You damn well better.”
Dick tried. “There’s him. Her. The kid and the girl. And maybe the other two. But it’s Saturday. They might have guests. Let’s count on eight, or even twelve. The only sure thing is every one of them has got to go.”
“Seems like a lot of it. To be so sure about.”
“Ain’t that what I promised you, honey—plenty of hair on them-those walls?”
Perry shrugged. “Then we’d better buy the whole roll.”
It was a hundred yards long—quite enough for twelve.
Kenyon had built the chest himself: a mahogany hope chest, lined with cedar, which he intended to give Beverly as a wedding present. Now, working on it in the so-called den in the basement, he applied a last coat of varnish. The furniture in the den, a cement-floored room that ran the length of the house, consisted almost entirely of examples of his carpentry (shelves, tables, stools, a ping-pong table) and Nancy’s needlework (chintz slipcovers that rejuvenated a decrepit couch, curtains, pillows bearinglegends: “happy?” and “you don’t have to be crazy to live here but it helps”). Together Kenyon and Nancy had made a paint-splattered attempt to deprive the basement room of its unremovable dourness, and neither was aware of failure. In fact, they both thought their den a triumph and a blessing—Nancy because it was a place where she could entertain “the gang” without disturbing her mother, and Kenyon because here he could be alone, free to bang, saw, and mess with his “inventions,” the newest of which was an electric deep-dish frying pan. Adjoining the den was a furnace room, which contained a tool-littered table piled with some of his other works-in-progress—an amplifying unit, an elderly wind-up Victrola that he was restoring to service.
Kenyon resembled neither of his parents physically; his crew-cut hair was hemp-colored, and he was six feet tall and lanky, though hefty enough to have once rescued a pair of full-grown sheep by carrying them two miles through a blizzard—sturdy, strong, but cursed with a lanky boy’s lack of muscular coordination. This defect, aggravated by an inability to function without glasses, prevented him from taking more than a token part in those team sports (basketball, baseball) that were the main occupation of most of the boys who might have been his friends. He had only one close friend—Bob Jones, the son of Taylor Jones, whose ranch was a mile west of the Clutter home. Out in rural Kansas, boys start driving cars very young; Kenyon was eleven when his father allowed him to buy, with money he had earned raising sheep, an old truck with a Model A engine—the “coyote wagon,” he and Bob called it. Not far from River Valley Farm there is a mysterious stretch of countryside known as the Sand Hills; it is like a beach without an ocean, and at night coyotes slink among the dunes, assembling in hordes to howl. On moonlit evenings, the boys would descend upon them, set them running, and try to outrace them in the wagon; they seldom did, for the scrawniest coyote can hit fifty miles an hour, whereas the wagon’s top speed was thirty-five, but it was a wild and beautiful kind of fun, the wagon skidding across the sand, the fleeing coyotes framed against the moon—as Bob said, it sure made your heart hurry.
Equally intoxicating, and more profitable, were the rabbit roundups the two boys conducted. Kenyon was a good shot and his friend a better one, and between them they sometimes delivered half a hundred rabbits to the “rabbit factory”—a Garden City processing plant that paid ten cents a head for the animals, which were then quick-frozen and shipped to mink growers. But what meant most to Kenyon—and Bob, too—was their weekends, overnight hunting hikes along the shores of the river: wandering, wrapping up in blankets, listening at sunrise for the noise of wings, moving toward the sound on tiptoe, and then, sweetest of all, swaggering homeward with a dozen duck dinners swinging from their belts. But lately things had changed between Kenyon and his friend. They hadn’t quarrelled, there had been no overt falling out, nothing had happened except that Bob, who was sixteen, had started “going with a girl,” which meant that Kenyon, a year younger and still very much the adolescent bachelor, could no longer count on his companionship. Bob told him, “When you’re my age, you’ll feel different. I used to think the same as you: Women—so what? But then you get to talking to some woman, and it’s mighty nice. You’ll see.” Kenyon doubted it; he could not conceive of ever wanting to waste an hour on any girl that might he spent with guns, horses, tools, machinery, even a book. If Bob was unavailable, then he would rather be alone, for in temperament he was not the least Mr. Clutter’s son but rather Bonnie’s child, a sensitive and reticent boy. His contemporaries thought him “standoffish,” yet forgave him, saying, “Oh, Kenyon. It’s just that he lives in a world of his own.”
Leaving the varnish to dry, he went on to another chore—one that took him out-of-doors. He wanted to tidy up his mother’s flower garden, a treasured patch of dishevelled foliage that grew beneath her bedroom window. When he got there, he found one of the hired men loosening earth with a spade—Paul Helm, the husband of the housekeeper.
“Seen that car? “ Mr. Helm asked.
Yes, Kenyon had seen a car in the driveway—a gray Buick, standing outside the entrance to his father’s office.
“Thought you might know who it was.”
“Not unless it’s Mr. Johnson. Dad said he was expecting him.”
Mr. Helm (the late Mr. Helm; he died of a stroke the following March) was a sombre man in his late fifties whose withdrawn manner veiled a nature keenly curious and watchful; he liked to know what was going on. “Which Johnson?”
“The insurance fellow.”
Mr. Helm grunted. “Your dad must be laying in a stack of it. That car’s been here I’d say three hours.”
The chill of oncoming dusk shivered through the air, and though the sky was still deep blue, lengthening shadows emanated from the garden’s tall chrysanthemum stalks; Nancy’s cat frolicked among them, catching its paws in the twine with which Kenyon and Mr. Helm were now tying plants. Suddenly, Nancy herself came jogging across the fields aboard fat Babe—Babe, returning from her Saturday treat, a bathe in the river. Teddy, the dog, accompanied them, and all three were water-splashed and shining.
“You’ll catch cold,” Mr. Helm said.
Nancy laughed; she had never been ill—not once. Sliding off Babe, she sprawled on the grass at the edge of the garden and seized her cat, dangled him above her, and kissed his nose and whiskers.
Kenyon was disgusted. “Kissing animals on the mouth.”
“You used to kiss Skeeter,” she reminded him.
“Skeeter was a horse.” A beautiful horse, a strawberry stallion he had raised from a foal. How that Skeeter could take a fence! “You use a horse too hard,” his father had cautioned him. “One day you’ll ride the life out of Skeeter.” And he had; while Skeeter was streaking down a road with his master astride him, his heart failed, and he stumbled and was dead. Now, a year later, Kenyon still mourned him, even though his father, taking pity on him, had promised him the pick of next spring’s foals.
“Kenyon?” Nancy said. “Do you think Tracy will be able to talk? By Thanksgiving?” Tracy, not yet a year old, was her nephew, the son of Eveanna, the sister to whom she felt particularly close. (Beverly was Kenyon’s favorite.) “It would thrill me to pieces to hear him say ‘Aunt Nancy.’ Or ‘Uncle Kenyon.’ Wouldn’t you like to hear him say that? I mean, don’t you love being an uncle? Kenyon? Good grief, why can’t you ever answer me? “
“Because you’re silly,” he said, tossing her the head of a flower, a wilted dahlia, which she jammed into her hair.
Mr. Helm picked up his spade. Crows cawed, sundown was near, but his home was not; the lane of Chinese elms had turned into a tunnel of darkening green, and he lived at the end of it, half a mile away. “Evening,” he said, and started his journey. But once he looked back. “And that,” he was to testify the next day, “was the last I seen them. The boy rooting around in the garden. Nancy leading old Babe off to the barn. Like I said, nothing out of the ordinary.”
The black Chevrolet was again parked, this time in front of a Catholic hospital on the outskirts of Emporia. Under continued needling (“That’s your trouble. You think there’s only one right way—Dick’s way”), Dick had surrendered. While Perry waited in the car, he had gone into the hospital to try and buy a pair of black stockings from a nun. This rather unorthodox method of obtaining them had been Perry’s inspiration; nuns, he had argued, were certain to have a supply. The notion presented one drawback, of course: nuns, and anything pertaining to them, were bad luck, and Perry was most respectful of his superstitions. (Some others were the number 15, red hair, white flowers, priests crossing a road, snakes appearing in a dream.) Still, it couldn’t be helped. The compulsively superstitious person is also very often a serious believer in fate; that was the case with Perry. He was here, and embarked on the present errand, not because he wished to be but because fate had arranged the matter; he could proveit—though he had no intention of doing so, at least within Dick’s hearing, for the proof would involve his confessing the true and secret motive behind his return to Kansas, a piece of parole violation he had decided upon for a reason quite unrelated to Dick’s “score” or Dick’s summoning letter. The reason was that several weeks earlier he had learned that on Thursday, November 12th, another of his former cellmates was being released from Kansas State Penitentiary at Lansing, and, “more than anything in the world,” he desired a reunion with this man, his “real and only friend,” the “brilliant” Willie-Jay.
During the first of his three years in prison, Perry had observed Willie-Jay from a distance, with interest but with apprehension; if one wished to be thought a tough specimen, intimacy with Willie-Jay seemed unwise. He was the chaplain’s clerk, a slender Irishman with prematurely gray hair and gray, melancholy eyes. His tenor voice was the glory of the prison’s choir. Even Perry, though he was contemptuous of any exhibition of piety, felt “upset” when he heard Willie-Jay sing “The Lord’s Prayer;” the hymn’s grave language sung in so credulous a spirit moved him, made him wonder a little at the justice of his contempt. Eventually, prodded by a slightly alerted religious curiosity, he approached Willie-Jay, and the chaplain’s clerk, at once responsive, thought he divined in the cripple-legged body builder with the misty gaze and the prim, smoky voice “a poet, something rare and savable.” An ambition to “bring this boy to God” engulfed him. His hopes of succeeding accelerated when, one day, Perry produced a pastel drawing he had made—a large, in no way technically naïve portrait of Jesus. Lansing’s Protestant chaplain, the Reverend James E. Post, so valued it that he hung it in his office, where it hangs still: a slick and pretty Saviour, with Willie-Jay’s full lips and grieving eyes. The picture was the climax of Perry’s never very earnest spiritual quest, and, ironically, the termination of it; he adjudged his Jesus “a piece of hypocrisy,” an attempt to “fool and betray” Willie-Jay, for he was as unconvinced of God as ever. Yet should he admit this and risk forfeiting the one friend who had ever “truly understood” him? (Hod, Joe, Jesse, travellers straying through a world where last names were seldom exchanged, these had been his “buddies”—never anyone like Willie-Jay, who was, in Perry’s opinion, “way above average intellectually, perceptive as a well-trained psychologist.” How was it possible that so gifted a man had wound up in Lansing? That was what amazed Perry. The answer, which he knew but rejected as “an evasion of the deeper, the human question,” was plain to simpler minds: the chaplain’s clerk, then thirty-eight, was a thief, a small-scale robber, who, over a period of twenty years, had served sentences in five different states.) Perry decided to speak out: he was sorry, but it was not for him—Heaven, Hell, saints, divine mercy—and if Willie-Jay’s affection was founded on the prospect of Perry’s someday joining him at the foot of the Cross, then he was deceived and their friendship false, a counterfeit, like the portrait. As usual, Willie-Jay understood; disheartened but not disenchanted, he had persisted in courting Perry’s soul until the day of its possessor’s parole and departure, on the eve of which he wrote Perry a farewell letter, whose last paragraph ran: “You are a man of extreme passion, a hungry man not quite sure where his appetite lies, a deeply frustrated man striving to project his individuality against a backdrop of rigid conformity. You exist in a half-world suspended between two superstructures, one self-expression and the other self-destruction. You are strong, but there is a flaw in your strength, and unless you learn to control it the flaw will prove stronger than your strength and defeat you. The flaw? Explosive emotional reaction out of all proportion to the occasion. Why? Why this unreasonable anger at the sight of others who are happy or content, this growing contempt for people and the desire to hurt them? All right, you think they’re fools, you despise them because their morals, their happiness is the source of your frustration and resentment. But these are dreadful enemies you carry within yourself—in time destructive as bullets. Mercifully, a bullet kills its victim. This other bacteria, permitted to age, does not kill a man but leaves in its wake the hulk of a creature torn and twisted; there is still fire within his being but it is kept alive by casting upon it faggots of scorn and hate. He may successfully accumulate, but he does not accumulate success, for he is his own enemy and is kept from truly enjoying his achievements.”
Perry, flattered to be the subject of this sermon, had let Dick read it, and Dick, who took a dim view of Willie-Jay, had called the letter “just more of Billy Graham-cracker’s hooey,” adding, “ ‘Faggots of scorn’! He’s the faggot.” Of course, Perry had expected this reaction, and secretly he welcomed it, for his friendship with Dick, whom he had scarcely known until his final few months at Lansing, was an outgrowth of, and counterbalance to, the intensity of his admiration for the chaplain’s clerk. Perhaps Dick was “shallow,” or even, as Willie-Jay claimed, “a vicious blusterer.” All the same, Dick was full of fun, and he was shrewd, a realist, he “cut through things,” there were no clouds in his head or straw in his hair. Moreover, unlike Willie-Jay, he was not critical of Perry’s exotic aspirations; he was willing to listen, catch fire, share with him those visions of “guaranteed treasure” lurking in Mexican seas, Brazilian jungles.
After Perry’s parole, four months elapsed, months of rattling around in a fifth-hand, hundred-dollar Ford, rolling from Reno to Las Vegas, from Bellingham, Washington, to Buhl, Idaho, and it was in Buhl, where he had found temporary work as a truck driver, that Dick’s letter reached him: “Friend P., Came out in August, and after you left I Met Someone, you do not know him, but he put me on to Something we could bring off Beautiful. A cinch, the Perfect score. . . . ” Until then, Perry had not imagined that he would ever see Dick again. Or Willie-Jay. But they had both been much in his thoughts, and especially the latter, who in memory had grown ten feet tall, a gray-haired wise man haunting the hallways of his mind. “You pursue the negative,” Willie-Jay had informed him once, in one of his lectures. “You want not to give a damn, to exist without responsibility, without faith or friends or warmth.”
In the solitary, comfortless course of his recent driftings, Perry had over and over again reviewed this indictment, and had decided it was unjust. He did give a damn—but who had ever given a damn about him? His father? Yes, up to a point. A girl or two—but that was “a long story.” No one else except Willie-Jay himself. And only Willie-Jay had ever recognized his worth, his potentialities, had acknowledged that he was not just an undersized, overmuscled half-breed, had seen him, for all the moralizing, as he saw himself—“exceptional, “ “ rare,” “artistic.” In Willie-Jay his vanity had found support, his sensibility shelter, and the four-month exile from this high-carat appreciation had made it more alluring than any dream of buried gold. So when he received Dick’s invitation, and realized that the date Dick proposed for his coming to Kansas more or less coincided with the time of Willie-Jay’s release, he knew what he must do. He drove to Las Vegas, sold his junk-heap car, packed his collection of maps, old letters, manuscripts, and books, and bought a ticket for a Greyhound bus. The journey’s aftermath was up to fate; if things didn’t “work out with Willie-Jay,” then he might “consider Dick’s proposition.” As it turned out, the choice was between Dick and nothing, for when Perry’s bus reached Kansas City, on the evening of November 12th, Willie-Jay, whom he’d been unable to inform of his coming, had already left town—left, in fact, only five hours earlier, from the same terminal at which Perry arrived. That much he had learned by telephoning the Reverend Mr. Post, who further discouraged him by declining to reveal his former clerk’s exact destination. “He’s headed East,” the chaplain said. “To fine opportunities. A decent job, and a home with some good people who are willing to help him.” And Perry, hanging up, had felt “dizzy with anger and disappointment.”
But what, he wondered when the anguish subsided, had he really expected from a reunion with Willie-Jay? Freedom had separated them; as free men, they had nothing in common, were opposites, who could never have formed a “team”—certainly not one capable of embarking on the skin-diving south-of-the-border adventures he and Dick had plotted. Nevertheless, if he had not missed Willie-Jay, if they could have been together for even an hour, Perry was quite convinced—just “knew”—that he would not now be loitering outside a hospital waiting for Dick to emerge with a pair of black stockings.
Dick returned empty-handed. “No go,” he announced, with a furtive casualness that made Perry suspicious.
“Are you sure? Sure you even asked?”
“Sure I did.”
“I don’t believe you. I think you went in there, hung around a couple of minutes, and came out.”
“O.K., sugar—whatever you say.” Dick started the car. After they had travelled in silence awhile, Dick patted Perry on the knee. “Aw, come on,” he said. “It was a puky idea. What the hell would they have thought? Me barging in there like it was a goddam five-’n’-dime . . .”
Perry said, “Maybe it’s just as well. Nuns are a bad-luck bunch.”
The Garden City representative of the New York Life Insurance Company smiled as he watched Mr. Clutter uncap a Parker pen and open a checkbook. He was reminded of a local jest: “Know what they say about you, Herb? Say, ‘Since haircuts went to a dollar-fifty, Herb writes the barber a check.’ “
“That’s correct,” replied Mr. Clutter. Like royalty, he was famous for never carrying cash. “That’s the way I do business. When those tax fellows come poking around, cancelled checks are your best friend.”
With the check written but not yet signed, he swivelled back in his desk chair and seemed to ponder. The agent, a stocky, somewhat bald, rather informal man named Bob Johnson, hoped his client wasn’t having last-minute doubts. Herb was hardheaded, a slow man to make a deal; Johnson had worked over a year to clinch this sale. But, no, his customer was merely experiencing what Johnson called the Solemn Moment—a phenomenon familiar to insurance salesmen. The mood of a man insuring his life is not unlike that of a man signing his will; thoughts of mortality must occur.
“Yes. Yes,” said Mr. Clutter, as though conversing with himself. “I’ve plenty to be grateful for—wonderful things in my life.” Framed documents commemorating milestones in his career gleamed against the walnut walls of his office: a college diploma, a map of River Valley Farm, agricultural awards, an ornate certificate bearing the signatures of Dwight D. Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles, which cited his services to the Federal Farm Credit Board. “The kids. We’ve been lucky there. Shouldn’t say it, but I’m real proud of them. Take Kenyon. Right now he kind of leans toward being an engineer, or a scientist, but you can’t tell me my boy’s not a born rancher. God willing, he’ll run this place someday. You ever met Eveanna’s husband? Don Jarchow? Veterinarian. I can’t tell you how much I think of that boy. Vere, too. Vere English—the boy my girl Beverly had the good sense to settle on. If anything ever happened to me, I’m sure I could trust those fellows to take responsibility; Bonnie by herself—Bonnie wouldn’t be able to carry on an operation like this. . . . ”
Johnson, a veteran at listening to ruminations of this sort, knew it was time to intervene. “Why, Herb,” he said. “You’re a young man. Forty-eight. And from the looks of you, from what the medical report tells us, we’re likely to have you around a couple of weeks more.”
Mr. Clutter straightened, reached again for his pen. “Tell the truth, I feel pretty good. And pretty optimistic. I’ve got an idea a man could make some real money around here the next few years.” While outlining his schemes for future financial betterment, he signed the check and pushed it across his desk.
The time was ten past six, and the agent was anxious to go; his wife would be waiting supper. “It’s been a pleasure, Herb.”
“Same here, fellow.”
They shook hands. Then, with a merited sense of victory, Johnson picked up Mr. Clutter’s check and deposited it in his billfold. It was the first payment on a forty-thousand-dollar policy that, in the event of death by accidental means, paid double indemnity.
“And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known….”
With the aid of his guitar, Perry had sung himself into a happier humor. He knew the lyrics of some two hundred hymns and ballads—a repertoire ranging from “The Old Rugged Cross” to Cole Porter—and, in addition to the guitar, he could play the harmonica, the accordion, the banjo, and the xylophone. In one of his favorite theatrical fantasies, his stage name was Perry O’Parsons, a star who billed himself as “The One-Man Symphony.”
Dick said, “How about a cocktail?”
Personally, Perry didn’t care what he drank, for he was not much of a drinker. Dick, however, was choosy, and in bars his usual choice was an Orange Blossom. From the car’s glove compartment Perry fetched a pint bottle containing a ready-mix compound of orange flavoring and vodka. They passed the bottle to and fro. Though dusk had established itself, Dick, doing a steady sixty miles an hour, was still driving without headlights, but then the road was straight, the country was as level as a lake, and other cars were seldom sighted. This was “out there”—or getting near it.
“Christ!” said Perry, glaring at the landscape, flat and limitless under the sky’s cold, lingering green—empty and lonesome, except for the far-between flickerings of farmhouse lights. He hated it, as he hated the Texas plains, the Nevada desert; spaces horizontal and sparsely inhabited had always induced in him a depression accompanied by agoraphobic sensations. Seaports were his heart’s ideal—crowded, clanging, ship-clogged, sewage-scented cities, like Yokohama, where, as an American Army private, he’d spent a summer during the Korean War. “Christ—and they told me to keep away from Kansas! Never set my pretty foot here again. As though they were barring me from Heaven. And just look at it. Just feast your eyes.”
Dick handed him the bottle, the contents reduced by half. “Save the rest,” Dick said. “We may need it.”
“Remember, Dick? All that talk about getting a boat? I was thinking—we could buy a boat in Mexico. Something cheap but sturdy. And we could go to Japan. Sail right across the Pacific. It’s been done—thousands of people have done it. I’m not conning you, Dick—you’d go for Japan. Wonderful, gentle people, with manners like flowers. Really considerate—not just out for your dough. And the women. You’ve never met a real woman. . . . ”
“Yes, I have,” said Dick, who claimed still to be in love with his honey-blond first wife though she had remarried.
“There are these baths. One place called the Dream Pool. You stretch out, and beautiful, knockout-type girls come and scrub you head to toe.”
“You told me.” Dick’s tone was curt.
“So? Can’t I repeat myself?”
“Later. Let’s talk about it later. Hell, man, I’ve got plenty on my mind.”
Dick switched on the radio; Perry switched it off. Ignoring Dick’s protest, he strummed his guitar:
“I come to the garden alone,
While the dew is still on the roses,
And the voice I hear,
Falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses….”
A full moon was forming at the edge of the sky.
The following Monday, while giving evidence prior to taking a lie-detector test, young Bobby Rupp described his last visit to the Clutter home: “There was a full moon, and I thought maybe, if Nancy wanted to, we might go for a drive—drive out to McKinney Lake. Or go to the movies in Garden City. But when I called her—it must have been about ten of seven—she said she’d have to ask her father. Then she came back, and said the answer was no—because we’d stayed out so late the night before. But she said, Why didn’t I come over and watch television. I’ve spent a lot of time at the Clutters’ watching television. See, Nancy’s the only girl I ever dated. I’d known her all my life; we’d gone to school together from the first grade. Always, as long as I can remember, she was pretty and popular—a person, even when she was a little kid. I mean, she just made everybody feel good about themselves. The first time I dated her was when we were in the eighth grade. Most of the boys in our class wanted to take her to the eighth-grade graduation dance, and I was surprised—I was pretty proud—when she said she would go with me. We were both twelve. My dad lent me the car, and I drove her to the dance. The more I saw her, the more I liked her; the whole family, too—there wasn’t any other family like them, not around here, not that I know of. Mr. Clutter may have been more strict about some things—religion, and so on—but he never tried to make you feel he was right and you were wrong.
“We live three miles west of the Clutter place. I used to walk it back and forth, but I always worked summers, and last year I’d saved enough to buy my own car, a ’55 Ford. So I drove over there, got there a little after seven. I didn’t see anybody on the road or on the lane that leads up to the house, or anybody outside. Just old Teddy. He barked at me. The lights were on downstairs—in the living room and in Mr. Clutter’s office. The second floor was dark, and I figured Mrs. Clutter must be asleep—if she was home. You never knew whether she was or not, and I never asked. But I found out I was right, because later in the evening Kenyon wanted to practice his horn—he played baritone horn in the school band—and Nancy told him not to, because he would wake up Mrs. Clutter. Anyway, when I got there they had finished supper and Nancy had cleaned up, put all the dishes in the dishwater, and the three of them—the two kids and Mr. Clutter—were in the living room. So we sat around like any other night—Nancy and I on the couch, and Mr. Clutter in his chair, that stuffed rocker. He wasn’t watching the television so much as he was reading a book—a ‘Rover Boy,’ one of Kenyon’s books. Once, he went out to the kitchen and came back with two apples; he offered one to me, but I didn’t want it, so he ate them both. He had very white teeth; he said apples were why. Nancy—Nancy was wearing socks and soft slippers, blue jeans, I think a green sweater; she was wearing a gold wristwatch and an I.D. bracelet I gave her last January for her sixteenth birthday—with her name on one side and mine on the other—and she had on a ring, some little silver thing she bought a summer ago, when she went to Colorado with the Kidwells. It wasn’t my ring—our ring. See, a couple of weeks back she got sore at me and said she was going to take off our ring for a while. When your girl does that, it means you’re on probation. I mean, sure, we had fusses—everybody does, all the kids that go steady. What happened was I went to this friend’s wedding, the reception, and drank a beer, one bottle of beer, and Nancy got to hear about it. Some tattle told her I was roaring drunk. Well, she was stone, wouldn’t say hello for a week. But lately we’d been getting on good as ever, and I believe she was about ready to wear our ring again.
“O.K. The first show was called ‘The Man and the Challenge.’ Channel 11. About some fellows in the Arctic. Then we saw a Western, and after that a spy adventure—‘Five Fingers.’ ‘Mike Hammer’ came on at nine-thirty. Then the news. But Kenyon didn’t like anything, mostly because we wouldn’t let him pick the programs. He criticized everything, and Nancy kept telling him to hush up. They always quibbled, but actually they were very close—closer than most brothers and sisters. I guess partly it was because they’d been alone together so much, what with Mrs. Clutter away and Mr. Clutter gone to Washington, or wherever. I know Nancy loved Kenyon very specially, but I don’t think even she, or anybody, exactly understood him. He seemed to be off somewhere. You never knew what he was thinking, never even knew if he was looking at you—on account of he was slightly cockeyed. Some people said he was a genius, and maybe it was true. He sure did read a lot. But, like I say, he was restless; he didn’t want to watch the TV, he wanted to practice his horn, and when Nancy wouldn’t let him, I remember Mr. Clutter told him why didn’t he go down to the basement, the recreation room, where nobody could hear him. But he didn’t want to do that, either.
“The phone rang once. Twice? Gosh, I can’t remember. Except that once the phone rang and Mr. Clutter answered it in his office. The door was open—that sliding door between the living room and the office—and I heard him say ‘Van,’ so I knew he was talking to his partner, Mr. Van Vleet, and I heard him say that he had a headache but that it was getting better. And he said he’d see Mr. Van Vleet on Monday. When he came back—Yes, the ‘Mike Hammer’ was just over. Five minutes of news. Then the weather report. Mr. Clutter always perked up when the weather report came on. It’s all he ever really waited for. Like the only thing that interested me was the sports—which came on next. After the sports ended, that was ten-thirty, and I got up to go. Nancy walked me out. We talked awhile, and made a date to go to the movies Sunday night—a picture all the girls were looking forward to, ‘Blue Denim.’ Then she ran back in the house, and I drove away. It was as clear as day—the moon was so bright—and cold and kind of windy; a lot of tumbleweed blowing about. But that’s all I saw. Only, now when I think back, I think somebody must have been hiding there. Maybe down among the trees. Somebody just waiting for me to leave.”
The travellers stopped for dinner at a restaurant in Great Bend. Perry, down to his last fifteen dollars, was ready to settle for root beer and a sandwich, but Dick said no, they needed a solid “tuck-in,” and never mind the cost, the tab was his. They ordered two steaks medium rare, baked potatoes, French fries, fried onions, succotash, side dishes of macaroni and hominy, salad with Thousand Island dressing, cinnamon rolls, apple pie with ice cream, and coffee. To top it off, they visited a drugstore and selected cigars; in the same drugstore, they also bought two thick rolls of adhesive tape.
As the black Chevrolet regained the highway and hurried on across a countryside imperceptibly ascending toward the colder, cracker-dry climate of the high wheat plains, Perry closed his eyes and dozed off into a food-dazed semi-slumber, from which he woke to hear a voice reading the eleven-o’clock news. He rolled down a window and bathed his face in the flood of frosty air. Dick told him they were in Finney County. “We crossed the line ten miles back,” he said. The car was going very fast. Signs, their messages ignited by the car’s headlights, flared up, flew by: “See the Polar Bears,” “Burtis Motors,” “World’s Largest free Swimpool,” “Wheat Lands Motel,” and, finally, a bit before street lamps began, “Howdy, Stranger! Welcome to Garden City. A Friendly Place.”
They skirted the southern rim of the town. No one was abroad at this nearly midnight hour, and nothing was open except a string of desolately brilliant service stations. Dick turned into one—Hurd’s Phillips 66. A youngster appeared, and asked, “Fill her up?” Dick nodded, and Perry, getting out of the car, went inside the station, where he locked himself in the men’s room. His legs pained him, as they often did; they hurt as though his old accident had happened five minutes before. He shook three aspirin out of a bottle, chewed them slowly (for he liked the taste), and then drank water from the basin tap. He sat down on the toilet, stretched out his legs, and rubbed them, massaging the almost unbendable knees. Dick had said they were almost there—“only seven miles more.” He unzipped a pocket of his windbreaker and brought out a paper sack; inside it were the recently purchased rubber gloves. They were glue-colored, sticky, and thin, and as he inched them on, one tore—not a dangerous tear, just a split between the fingers, but it seemed to him an omen.
The doorknob turned, rattled. Dick said, “Want some candy? They got a candy machine out here.”
“Don’t be all night.”
Dick dropped a dime in a vending machine, pulled the lever, and picked up a bag of jelly beans; munching, he wandered back to the car and lounged there watching the young attendant’s efforts to rid the windshield of Kansas dust and the slime of battered insects. The attendant, whose name was James Spor, felt uneasy. Dick’s eyes and sullen expression and Perry’s strange, prolonged sojourn in the lavatory disturbed him. (The next day, he reported to his employer, “We had some tough customers in here last night,” but he did not think, then or for the longest while, to connect the visitors with the tragedy in Holcomb.)
Dick said, “Kind of slow around here.”
“Sure is,” James Spor said. “You’re the only body stopped here since two hours. Where you coming from?”
“Here to hunt?’
“Just passing through. On our way to Arizona. We got jobs waiting there. Construction work. Any idea the mileage between here and Tucumcari, New Mexico?”
“Can’t say I do. Three dollars six cents.” He accepted Dick’s money, made change, and said, “You’ll excuse me, sir? I’m doing a job. Putting a bumper on a truck.”
Dick waited, ate some jelly beans, impatiently gunned the motor, sounded the horn. Was it possible that he had misjudged Perry’s character? That Perry, of all people, was suffering a sudden case of “blood bubbles”? A year ago, when they first encountered each other, he’d thought Perry “a good guy,” if a bit “stuck on himself,” “sentimental,” too much “the dreamer.” He had liked him but not considered him especially worth cultivating until, one day, Perry described a murder, telling how, simply for “the hell of it,” he had killed a colored man in Las Vegas—beaten him to death with a bicycle chain. The anecdote elevated Dick’s opinion of Little Perry; he began to see more of him, and, like Willie-Jay, though for dissimilar reasons, gradually decided that Perry possessed unusual and valuable qualities. Several murderers, or men who boasted of murder or their willingness to commit it, circulated inside Lansing, but Dick became convinced that Perry was that rarity, “a natural killer”—absolutely sane, but conscienceless, and capable of dealing, with or without motive, the coldest-blooded deathblows. It was Dick’s theory that such a gift could, under his supervision, be profitably exploited. Having reached this conclusion, he had proceeded to woo Perry, flatter him—pretend, for example, that he believed all the buried-treasure stuff and shared his beachcomber yearnings and seaport longings, none of which appealed to Dick, who wanted “a regular life,” with a business of his own, a house, a horse to ride, a new car, and “plenty of blond chicken.” It was important, however, that Perry not suspect this—not until Perry, with his gift, had helped further Dick’s ambitions. But perhaps it was Dick who had miscalculated, been duped; if so—if it developed that Perry was, after all, only an “ordinary punk”—then “the party” was over, the months of planning were wasted, there was nothing to do but turn and go. It mustn’t happen; Dick returned to the station.
The door to the men’s room was still bolted. He banged on it: “For Christsake, Perry!”
“In a minute.”
“What’s the matter? You sick?”
Perry gripped the edge of the washbasin and hauled himself to a standing position. His legs trembled; the pain in his knees made him perspire. He wiped his face with a paper towel. He unlocked the door and said, “O.K. Let’s go.”
Nancy’s bedroom was the smallest, most personal room in the house—girlish, and as frothy as a ballerina’s tutu. Walls, ceiling, and everything else except a bureau and a writing desk were pink or blue or white. The white-and-pink bed, piled with blue pillows, was dominated by a big pink-and-white Teddy bear—a shooting-gallery prize that Bobby had won at the county fair. A cork bulletin board, painted pink, hung above a white-skirted dressing table; dry gardenias, the remains of some ancient corsage, were attached to it, and old valentines, newspaper recipes, and snapshots of her baby nephew and of Susan Kidwell and of Bobby Rupp, Bobby caught in a dozen actions—swinging a bat, dribbling a basketball, driving a tractor, wading, in bathing trunks, at the edge of McKinney Lake (which was as far as he dared go, for he had never learned to swim). And there were photographs of the two together—Nancy and Bobby. Of these, she liked best one that showed them sitting in a leaf-dappled light amid picnic debris and looking at one another with expressions that, though unsmiling, seemed mirthful and full of delight. Other pictures, of horses, of cats deceased but unforgotten—like “poor Boobs,” who had died not long ago and most mysteriously (she suspected poison)—encumbered her desk.
Nancy was invariably the last of the family to retire; as she had once informed her friend and home-economics teacher, Mrs. Polly Stringer, the midnight hours were her “time to be selfish and vain.” It was then that she went through her beauty routine, a cleansing, creaming ritual, which on Saturday nights included washing her hair. Tonight, having dried and brushed her hair and bound it in a gauzy bandanna, she set out the clothes she intended to wear to church the next morning: nylons, black pumps, a red velvet dress—her prettiest, which she herself had made. It was the dress in which she was to be buried.
Before saying her prayers, she always recorded in a diary a few occurrences (“Summer here. Forever, I hope. Sue over and we rode Babe down to the river. Sue played her flute. Fireflies”) and an occasional outburst (“I love him, I do”). It was a five-year diary; in the four years of its existence she had never neglected to make an entry, though the splendor of several events (Eveanna’s wedding, the birth of her nephew) and the drama of others (her “first real quarrel with Bobby”—a page literally tear-stained) had caused her to usurp space allotted to the future. A different tinted ink identified each year: 1956 was green and 1957 a ribbon of red, replaced the following year by bright lavender, and now, in 1959, she had decided upon a dignified blue. But, as in every manifestation, she continued to tinker with her handwriting, slanting it to the right or to the left, shaping it roundly or steeply, loosely or stingily—as though she were asking, “Is this Nancy? Or that? Or that? Which is me?” (Once, Mrs. Riggs, her English teacher, had returned a theme with the scribbled comment “Good. But why written in three styles of script?” To which Nancy had replied, “Because I’m not grown-up enough to be one person with one kind of signature.”) Still, she had progressed in recent months, and it was in a handwriting of emerging maturity that she wrote, “Jolene K. came over and I showed her how to make a cherry pie. Practiced with Roxie. Bobby here and we watched TV. Left at 11:00.”“This is it, this is it, this has to be it, there’s the school, there’s the garage, now we turn south.” To Perry, it seemed as though Dick were muttering jubilant mumbo-jumbo. They left the highway, sped through a deserted Holcomb, and crossed the Santa Fe tracks. “The bank, that must be the bank, now we turn west—see the trees? This is it, this has to be it.” The headlights disclosed a lane of Chinese elms; bundles of wind-blown thistle scurried across it. Dick doused the headlights, slowed down, and stopped until his eyes were adjusted to the moon-illuminated night. Presently, the car crept forward.
Holcomb is twelve miles east of the Mountain Time zone, a circumstance that causes some grumbling, for it means that at seven in the morning, and in winter at eight or after, the sky is still dark, and the stars, if any, are still shining—as they were when the two sons of Vic Irsik arrived to do their Sunday-morning chores. But by nine, when the boys finished work—during which they noticed nothing amiss—the sun had risen, delivering another day of pheasant-season perfection. As they left the property and ran along the lane, they waved at an incoming car, and a girl waved back. She was a classmate of Nancy Clutter’s, and her name was also Nancy—Nancy Ewalt. She was the only child of the man who was driving the car, Mr. Clarence Ewalt, a middle-aged sugar-beet farmer. Mr. Ewalt was not himself a churchgoer, nor was his wife, but every Sunday he dropped his daughter at River Valley Farm in order that she might accompany the Clutter family to Methodist services in Garden City. The arrangement saved him “making two back-and-forth trips to town.” It was his custom to wait until he had seen his daughter safely admitted to the house. Nancy, a clothes-conscious girl with a film-star figure, a bespectacled countenance, and a coy, tiptoe way of walking, crossed the lawn and pressed the front-door bell. The house had four entrances, and when, after repeated knockings, there was no response at this one, she moved on to the next—that of Mr. Clutter’s office. Here the door was partly open; she opened it somewhat more—enough to ascertain that the office was filled only with shadow—but she did not think the Clutters would appreciate her “barging right in.” She rang, knocked, and at last walked around to the back of the house. The garage was there, and she noted that both cars were in it: two Chevrolet sedans. Which meant they must be home. However, having applied unavailingly at a third door, which led into a “utility room,” and a fourth, the door to the kitchen, she rejoined her father, who said, “Maybe they’re asleep.”
“But that’s impossible. Can you imagine Mr. Clutter missing church? Just tosleep?”
“Come on, then. We’ll drive down to the Teacherage. Susan ought to know what’s happened.”
The Teacherage, which stands opposite the Holcomb School, is an out-of-date edifice, drab and poignant. Its twenty-odd rooms are separated into grace-and-favor apartments for those members of the faculty unable to find, or afford, other quarters. Nevertheless, Susan Kidwell and her mother had managed to sugar the pill and install a cozy atmosphere in their apartment—three rooms on the ground floor. The very small parlor incredibly contained—aside from things to sit on—an organ, a piano, a garden of flowering flowerpots, and usually a darting little dog and a large, drowsy cat. Susan, on this Sunday morning, stood at the window of this room watching the street. She is a tall, languid young lady with a pallid, oval face and beautiful pale-blue-gray eyes; her hands are extraordinary—long-fingered, flexible, nervously elegant. She was dressed for church, and expected momentarily to see the Clutters’ Chevrolet, for she, too, always attended services chaperoned by the Clutter family. Instead, the Ewalts arrived to tell their peculiar tale.
But Susan knew no explanation, nor did her mother, who said, “If there was some change of plan, why, I’m sure they would have telephoned. Susan, why don’t you call the house? They could be asleep—I suppose.”
“So I did,” said Susan, in a statement made at a later date. “I called the house and let the phone ring—at least, I had the impression it was ringing—oh, a minute or more. Nobody answered, so Mr. Ewalt suggested that we go to the house and try to ‘wake them up.’ But when we got there—I didn’t want to do it. Go inside the house. I was frightened, and I don’t know why, because it never occurred to me—Well, something like that just doesn’t. But the sun was so bright, everything looked too bright and quiet. And then I saw that all the cars were there, even Kenyon’s old coyote wagon. Mr. Ewalt was wearing work clothes; he had mud on his boots; he felt he wasn’t properly dressed to go calling on the Clutters. Especially since he never had. Been in the house, I mean. Finally, Nancy said she would go with me. We went around to the kitchen door, and, of course, it wasn’t locked; the only person who ever locked doors around there was Mrs. Helm—the family never did. We walked in, and I saw right away that the Clutters hadn’t eaten breakfast; there were no dishes, nothing on the stove. Then I noticed something funny: Nancy’s purse. It was lying on the floor, sort of open. We passed on through the dining room, and stopped at the bottom of the stairs. Nancy’s room is just at the top. I called her name, and started up the stairs, and Nancy Ewalt followed. The sound of our footsteps frightened me more than anything, they were so loud and everything else was so silent. Nancy’s door was open. The curtains hadn’t been drawn, and the room was full of sunlight. I don’t remember screaming. Nancy Ewalt says I did—screamed and screamed. I only remember Nancy’s Teddy bear staring at me. And Nancy. And running . . . ”
In the interim, Mr. Ewalt had decided that perhaps he ought not to have allowed the girls to enter the house alone. He was getting out of the car to go after them when he heard the screams, but before he could reach the house, the girls were running toward him. His daughter shouted, “She’s dead!” and flung herself into his arms. “It’s true, Daddy! Nancy’s dead! “
Susan turned on her. “No, she isn’t. And don’t you say it. Don’t you dare. It’s only a nosebleed. She has them all the time, terrible nosebleeds, and that’s all it is.”
“There’s too much blood. There’s blood on the walls. You didn’t really look.”
“I couldn’t make head nor tails,” Mr. Ewalt subsequently testified. “I thought maybe the child was hurt. It seemed to me the first thing to do was call an ambulance. Miss Kidwell—Susan—she told me there was a telephone in the kitchen. I found it, right where she said. But the receiver was off the hook, and when I picked it up, I saw the line had been cut.”
Larry Hendricks, a teacher of English, aged twenty-seven, lived on the top floor of the Teacherage. He wanted to write, but his apartment was not the ideal lair for a would-be author. It was smaller than the Kidwells’, and, moreover, he shared it with a wife, three active children, and a perpetually functioning television set. (“It’s the only way we can keep the kids pacified.”) Though as yet unpublished, young Hendricks, a he-mannish ex-sailor from Oklahoma who smokes a pipe and has a mustache and a crop of untamed black hair, at least looks literary—in fact, remarkably like youthful photographs of the writer he most admires, Ernest Hemingway. To supplement his teacher’s salary, he also drove a school bus.
“Sometimes I cover sixty miles a day,” he said to an acquaintance. “Which doesn’t leave much time for writing. Except Sundays. Now, that Sunday, November 15th, I was sitting up here in the apartment going through the papers. Most of my ideas for stories, I get them out of newspapers—you know? Well, the TV was on and the kids were kind of lively, but even so I could hear voices. From downstairs. Down at Mrs. Kidwell’s. But I didn’t figure it was my concern, since I was new here—only came to Holcomb when school began. But then Shirley—she’d been out hanging up some clothes—my wife, Shirley, rushed in and said, ‘Honey, you better go downstairs. They’re all hysterical.’ The two girls—now, they really were hysterical. Susan never has got over it. Never will, ask me. And poor Mrs. Kidwell. Her health’s not too good; she’s high-strung to begin with. She kept saying—but it was only later I understood what she meant—she kept saying, ‘Oh, Bonnie, Bonnie, what happened? You were so happy, you told me it was all over, you said you’d never be sick again.’ Words to that effect. Even Mr. Ewalt, he was about as worked up as a man like that ever gets. He had the sheriff’s office on the phone—the Garden City sheriff—and he was telling him that there was something radically wrong over at the Clutter place.’ The sheriff promised to come straight out, and Mr. Ewalt said fine, he’d meet him on the highway. Shirley came downstairs to sit with the women, try and calm them—as if anybody could. And I went with Mr. Ewalt—drove with him out to the highway to wait for Sheriff Robinson. On the way, he told me what had happened. When he came to the part about finding the wires cut, right then I thought, Uh-uh, and decided I’d better keep my eyes open. Make a note of every detail. In case I was ever called on to testify in court.
“The sheriff arrived; it was nine thirty-five—I looked at my watch. Mr. Ewalt waved at him to follow our car, and we drove out to the Clutters’. I’d never been there before, only seen it from a distance. Of course, I knew the family. Kenyon was in my sophomore English class, and I’d directed Nancy in the ‘Tom Sawyer’ play. But they were such exceptional, unassuming kids you wouldn’t have known they were rich or lived in such a big house—and the trees, the lawn, everything so tended and cared for. After we got there, and the sheriff had heard Mr. Ewalt’s story, he radioed his office and told them to send reinforcements, and an ambulance. Said, ‘There’s been some kind of accident.’ Then we went in the house, the three of us. Went through the kitchen and saw a lady’s purse lying on the floor, and the phone where the wires had been cut. The sheriff was wearing a hip pistol, and when we started up the stairs, going to Nancy’s room, I noticed he kept his hand on it, ready to draw.
“Well, it was pretty bad. That wonderful girl—But you would never have known her. She’d been shot in the back of the head with a shotgun held maybe two inches away. She was lying on her side, facing the wall, and the wall was covered with blood. The bedcovers were drawn up to her shoulders. Sheriff Robinson, he pulled them back, and we saw that she was wearing a bathrobe, pajamas, socks, and slippers—like, whenever it happened, she hadn’t gone to bed yet. Her hands were tied behind her, and her ankles were roped together with the kind of cord you see on Venetian blinds. Sheriff said, ‘Is this Nancy Clutter?’—he’d never seen the child before. And I said, ‘Yes. Yes, that’s Nancy.’
“We stepped back into the hall, and looked around. All the other doors were closed. We opened one, and that turned out to be a bathroom. Something about it seemed wrong. I decided it was because of the chair—a sort of dining-room chair, that looked out of place in a bathroom. The next door—we all agreed it must be Kenyon’s room. A lot of boy-stuff scattered around. And I recognized Kenyon’s glasses—saw them on a bookshelf beside the bed. But the bed was empty, though it looked as if it had been slept in. So we walked to the end of the hall, the last door, and there, on her bed, that’s where we found Mrs. Clutter. She’d been tied, too. But differently—with her hands in front of her, so that she looked as though she were praying—and in one hand she was holding, gripping,a handkerchief. Or was it Kleenex? The cord around her wrists ran down to her ankles, which were bound together, and then ran on down to the bottom of the bed, where it was tied to the footboard—a very complicated, artful piece of work. Think how long it took to do! And her lying there, scared out of her wits. Well, she was wearing some jewelry, two rings—which is one of the many reasons why I’ve always discounted robbery as a motive—and a robe, and a white nightgown, and white socks. Her mouth had been taped with adhesive, but she’d been shot point-blank in the side of the head, and the blast—the impact—had ripped the tape loose. Her eyes were open. Wide open. As though she were still looking at the killer. Because she must have had to watch him do it—aim the gun. Nobody said anything. We were too stunned. I remember the sheriff searched around to see if he could find the discharged cartridge. But whoever had done it was much too smart and cool to have left behind any clues like that.
“Naturally, we were wondering where was Mr. Clutter? And Kenyon? Sheriff said, ‘Let’s try downstairs.’ The first place we tried was the master bedroom—the room where Mr. Clutter slept. The bedcovers were drawn back, and lying there, toward the foot of the bed, was a billfold with a mess of cards spilling out of it, like somebody had shuffled through them hunting something particular—a note, an I.O.U., who knows? The fact that there wasn’t any money in it didn’t signify one way or the other. It was Mr. Clutter’s billfold, and he never did carry cash. Even I knew that, and I’d only been in Holcomb a little more than two months. Another thing I knew was that neither Mr. Clutter nor Kenyon could see a darn without his glasses. And there were Mr. Clutter’s glasses sitting on a bureau. So I figured, wherever they were, they weren’t there of their own accord. We looked all over, and everything was just as it should be—no sign of a struggle, nothing disturbed. Except the office, where the telephone was off the hook, and the wires cut, same as in the kitchen. Sheriff Robinson, he found some shotguns in a closet, and sniffed them to see if they had been fired recently. Said they hadn’t, and—I never saw a more bewildered man—said, ‘Where the devil can Herb be?’ About then we heard footsteps. Coming up the stairs from the basement. ‘Who’s that?’ said the sheriff, like he was ready to shoot. And a voice said, ‘It’s me. Wendle.’ Turned out to be Wendle Meier, the under-sheriff. Seems he had come to the house and hadn’t seen us, so he’d gone investigating down in the basement. The sheriff told him—and it was sort of pitiful: ‘Wendle, I don’t know what to make of it. There’s two bodies upstairs.’ ‘Well,’ he said, Wendle did, ‘there’s another one down here.’ So we followed him down to the basement. Or playroom, I guess you’d call it. It wasn’t dark—there were windows that let in plenty of light. Kenyon was over in a corner, lying on a couch. He was gagged with adhesive tape, and bound hand and foot, like the mother—the same intricate process of the cord leading from the hands to the feet, and finally tied to an arm of the couch. Somehow, he haunts me the most, Kenyon does. I think it’s because he was the most recognizable, the one that looked the most like himself—even though he’d been shot in the face, directly, head on. He was wearing a T-shirt and blue jeans, and he was barefoot—as though he’d dressed in a hurry, just put on the first thing that came to hand. His head was propped by a couple of pillows, like they’d been stuffed under him to make an easier target.
“Then the sheriff said, ‘Where’s this go to?’ Meaning another door there in the basement. Sheriff led the way, but inside you couldn’t see your hand until Mr. Ewalt found the light switch. It was a furnace room, and very warm. Around here, people just install a gas furnace and pump the gas smack out of the ground. Doesn’t cost them a nickel—that’s why all the houses are overheated. Well, I took one look at Mr. Clutter, and it was hard to look again. I knew plain shooting couldn’t account for that much blood. And I wasn’t wrong. He’d been shot, all right, the same as Kenyon—with the gun held right in front of his face. But probably he was dead before he was shot. Or anyway, dying. Because his throat had been cut, too. He was wearing striped pajamas—nothing else. His mouth was taped; the tape had been wound plumb around his head. His ankles were tied together, hut not his hands—or, rather, he’d managed, God knows how, maybe in rage or pain, to break the cord binding his hands. He was sprawled in front of the furnace. On a big cardboard box that looked as though it had been laid there specially. A mattress box. Sheriff said, ‘Look here, Wendle.’ What he was pointing at was a bloodstained footprint. On the mattress box. A half-sole footprint with circles—two holes in the center, like a pair of eyes. Then one of us—Mr. Ewalt? I don’t recall—pointed out something else. A thing I can’t get out of my mind. There was a steampipe overhead, and knotted to it, dangling from it, was a piece of cord—the kind of cord the killer had used. Obviously, at some point Mr. Clutter had been tied there, strung up by his hands, and then cut down. But why? To torture him? I don’t guess we’ll ever know. Ever know who did it, or why, or what went on in that house that night.
“After a bit, the house began to fill up. Ambulances arrived, and the coroner, and the Methodist minister, a police photographer, state troopers, fellows from the radio and the newspaper. Oh, a bunch. Most of them had been called out of church, and acted as though they were still there. Very quiet. Whispery. It was like nobody could believe it. A state trooper asked me did I have any official business there, and said if not, then I’d better leave. Outside, on the lawn, I saw the under-sheriff talking to a man—Alfred Stoecklein, the hired man. Seems Stoecklein lived not a hundred yards from the Clutter house, with nothing between his place and theirs except a barn. But he was saying as to how he hadn’t heard a sound—said, ‘I didn’t know a thing about it till five minutes ago, when one of my kids come running in and told us the sheriff was here. The Missis and me, we didn’t sleep two hours last night, was up and down the whole time, on account of we got a sick baby. But the only thing we heard, about ten-thirty, quarter to eleven, I heard a car drive away, and I made the remark to Missis, “There goes Bob Rupp.” ’
“I started walking home, and on the way, about halfway down the lane, I saw Kenyon’s old collie, and that dog was scared. Stood there with its tail between its legs, didn’t bark or move. And seeing the dog—somehow, that made me feelagain. I’d been too dazed, too numb, to feel the full viciousness of it. The suffering. The horror. They were dead. A whole family. Gentle, kindly people, people I knew—murdered. You had to believe it, because it was really true.”
Eight non-stop passenger trains hurry through Holcomb every twenty-four hours. Of these, two pick up and deposit mail—an operation that, as the person in charge of it fervently explains, has its tricky side. “Yessir, you’ve got to keep on your toes. Them trains come through here, sometimes they’re going a hundred miles an hour. The breeze alone, why, it’s enough to knock you down. And when those mail sacks come flying out—sakes alive! It’s like playing tackle on a football team: What! Wham! wham! Not that I’m complaining, mind you. It’s honest work, government work, and it keeps me young.” Holcomb’s mail messenger, Mrs. Sadie Truitt—or Mother Truitt, as the townspeople call her—does seem younger than her years, which amount to seventy-five. A stocky, weathered widow who wears babushka bandanna and cowboy boots (“Most comfortable things you can put on your feet, soft as a loon feather”), Mother Truitt is the oldest native-born Holcombite. “Time was wasn’t anybody here wasn’t my kin. Them days, we called this place Sherlock. Then along came this stranger. By the name Holcomb. A hog-raiser, he was. Made money, and decided the town ought to be called after him. Soon as it was, what did he do? Sold out. Moved to California. Not us. I was born here, my children was born here. And! Here! We! Are!” One of her children is Mrs. Myrtle Claire, who happens to be the local postmistress. “Only, don’t go thinking that’s how I got this position with the government. Myrt didn’t even want me to have it. But it’s a job you bid for. Goes to whoever puts in the lowest bid. And I always do—so low a caterpillar could peek over it. Ha-ha! That sure does rile the boys. Lots of boys would like to be mail messenger, yessir. But I don’t know how much they’d like it when the snow’s high as old Mr. Primo Carnera, and the wind’s blowing blue-hard, and those sacks come sailing—Ugh! Wham!”
In Mother Truitt’s profession, Sunday is a workday like any other. On November 15th, while she was waiting for the westbound ten-thirty-two, she was astonished to see two ambulances cross the railroad tracks and turn toward the Clutter property. The incident provoked her into doing what she had never done before—abandon her duties. Let the mail fall where it may, this was news that Myrt must hear at once.
The people of Holcomb speak of their post office as “the Federal Building,” which seems rather too substantial a title to confer on a drafty and dusty shed. The ceiling leaks, the floor boards wobble, the mailboxes won’t shut, the light bulbs are broken, the clock has stopped. “Yes, it’s a disgrace,” agrees the caustic, somewhat original, and entirely imposing lady who presides over this litter. “But the stamps work, don’t they? Anyhow, what do I care? Back here in my part is real cozy. I’ve got my rocker, and a nice wood stove, and a coffeepot, and plenty to read.”
Mrs. Clare is a famous figure in Finney County. Her celebrity derives not from her present occupation but a previous one—dance-hall hostess, an incarnation not indicated by her appearance. She is a gaunt, trouser-wearing, woollen-shirted, cowboy-booted, ginger-colored, gingery-tempered woman of unrevealed age (“That’s for me to know, and you to guess”) but promptly revealed opinions, most of which are announced in a voice of rooster-crowd altitude and penetration. Until 1955, she and her late husband operated the Holcomb Dance Pavilion, an enterprise that, owing to its uniqueness in the area, attracted from a hundred miles around a fast-drinking, fancy-stepping clientele, whose behavior, in turn, attracted the interest of the sheriff now and then. “We had some rough times, all right,” says Mrs. Clare, reminiscing. “Some of those bowlegged country boys, you give ’em a little hooch and they’re like redskins—want to scalp everything in sight. Course, we only sold setups, never the hard stuff itself. Wouldn’t have, even if it was legal. My husband, Homer Clare, he didn’t hold with it; neither did I. One day, Homer Clare—he passed on seven months and twelve days today, after a five-hour operation out in Oregon—he said to me, ‘Myrt, we’ve lived all our lives in Hell, now we’re going to die in Heaven.’ The next day, we closed the dance hall. I’ve never regretted it. Oh, along at first I missed being a night owl—the tunes, the jollity. But now that Homer’s gone, I’m just glad to do my work here at the Federal Building. Sit a spell. Drink a cup of coffee.”
In fact, on that Sunday morning Mrs. Clare had just poured herself a cup of coffee from a freshly brewed pot when Mother Truitt returned.
“Myrt!” she said, but could say no more until she had caught her breath “Myrt, there’s two ambulances gone to the Clutters’.”
Her daughter said, “Where’s the ten-thirty-two?”
“Ambulances. Gone to the Clutters’—”
“Well, what about it? It’s only Bonnie. Having one of her spells. Where’s the ten-thirty-two?”
Mother Truitt subsided; as usual, Myrt knew the answer, was enjoying the last word. Then a thought occurred to her. “But Myrt, if it’s only Bonnie, why would there be two ambulances?’
A sensible question, as Mrs. Clare, an admirer of logic, though a curious interpreter of it, was driven to admit. She said she would telephone the Clutters’ housekeeper, Mrs. Helm. “Mabel will know,” she said.
The conversation with Mrs. Helm lasted several minutes, and was most distressing to Mother Truitt, who could hear nothing of it except the noncommittal monosyllabic responses of her daughter. Worse, when the daughter hung up, she did not quench the old woman’s curiosity; instead, she placidly drank her coffee, went to her desk, and began to postmark a pile of letters.
“Myrt,” Mother Truitt said. “For heaven’s sake. What did Mabel say?”
“I’m not surprised,” Mrs. Clare said. “When you think how Herb Clutter spent his whole life in a hurry, rushing in here to get his mail with never a minute to say good-morning-and-thank-you-dog, rushing around like a chicken with its head off—joining clubs, running everything, getting jobs maybe other people wanted. And now look—it’s all caught up with him. Well, he won’t be rushinganymore.”
“Why, Myrt ? Why won’t he?”
Mrs. Clare raised her voice. “because he’s dead. And Bonnie, too. And Nancy. And the boy. Somebody shot them.”
“Myrt—don’t say things like that. Who shot them?”
Without a pause in her postmarking activities, Mrs. Clare replied, “The man in the airplane. The one Herb sued for crashing into his fruit trees. If it wasn’t him, maybe it was you. Or somebody across the street. All the neighbors are rattlesnakes. Varmints looking for a chance to slam the door in your face. It’s the same the whole world over. You know that.”
“I don’t,” said Mother Truitt, who had put her hands over her ears. “I don’t know any such thing.”
“I’m scared, Myrt.”
“Of what? When your time comes, it comes. And tears won’t save you.” She had observed that her mother had begun to shed a few. “When Homer died, I used up all the fear I had in me, and all the grief, too. If there’s somebody loose around here that wants to cut my throat, I wish him luck. What difference does it make? It’s all the same in eternity. Just remember: If one bird carried every grain of sand, grain by grain, across the ocean, by the time he got them all on the other side, that would only be the beginning of eternity. So blow your nose.”
The grim information, announced from church pulpits, distributed over telephone wires, publicized by Garden City’s radio station, KIUL (“A tragedy, unbelievable and shocking beyond words, struck four members of the Herb Clutter family late Saturday night or early today. Death, brutal and without apparent motive . . . ”), produced in the average recipient a reaction nearer that of Mother Truitt’s than that of Mrs. Clare’s: amazement, shading into dismay; a shallow horror sensation that cold springs of personal fear swiftly deepened.
Hartman’s Café, which contains four roughly made tables and a lunch counter, could accommodate but a fraction of the frightened gossips, mostly male, who wished to gather there. The owner, Mrs. Bess Hartman, a sparsely fleshed, unfoolish lady with bobbed gray-and-gold hair and bright, authoritative green eyes, is a cousin of Postmistress Clare, whose style of candor Mrs. Hartman can equal, perhaps surpass. “Some people say I’m a tough old bird, but the Clutter business sure took the fly out of me,” she later said to a friend. “Imagine anybody pulling a stunt like that! Time I heard it, when everybody was pouring in here talking all kinds of wild-eyed stuff, my first thought was Bonnie. Course, it was silly, but we didn’t know the facts, and a lot of people thought maybe—on account of her spells. Now we don’t know what to think. It must have been a grudge killing. Done by somebody who knew that house inside out. But who hated the Clutters? I never heard a word against them; they were about as popular as a family can be, and if something like this could happen to them, then who’s safe, I ask you? One old man sitting here that Sunday, he put his finger right on it, the reason nobody can sleep; he said, ‘All we’ve got out here are our friends. There isn’t anything else.’ In a way, that’s the worst part of the crime. What a terrible thing when neighbors can’t look at each other without kind of wondering! Yes, it’s a hard fact to live with, but if they ever do find out who done it, I’m sure it’ll be a bigger surprise than the murders themselves.”
Mrs. Bob Johnson, the wife of the New York Life Insurance agent, is an excellent cook, but the Sunday dinner she had prepared was not eaten—at least, not while it was warm—for just as her husband was plunging a knife into the roast pheasant, he received a telephone call from a friend. “And that,” he recalls, rather ruefully, “was the first I heard of what had happened in Holcomb. I didn’t believe it. I couldn’t afford to. Lord, I had Clutter’s check right there in my pocket. A piece of paper worth eighty thousand dollars. If what I’d heard was true. But I thought, It can’t be, there must be some mistake, things like that don’t happen, you don’t sell a man a big policy one minute and he’s dead the next. Murdered. Meaning double indemnity. I didn’t know what to do. I called the manager of our office in Wichita. Told him how I had the check but hadn’t put it through, and asked what was his advice? Well, it was a delicate situation. It appeared that legallywe weren’t obligated to pay. But morally—that was another matter. Naturally, we decided to do the moral thing.”
The two persons who benefited by this honorable attitude—Eveanna Jarchow and her sister Beverly, sole heirs to their father’s estate—were, within a few hours of the awful discovery, on their way to Holcomb, Beverly travelling from Winfield, Kansas, where she had been visiting her fiancé, and Eveanna from her home in Mount Carroll, Illinois. Gradually, in the course of the day, other relatives were notified, among them Mr. Clutter’s father, his two brothers, Arthur and Clarence, and his sister Mrs. Harry Nelson, all of Larned, Kansas, and a second sister, Mrs. Elaine Selsor, of Palatka, Florida. Also, the parents of Bonnie Clutter, Mr. and Mrs. Arthur B. Fox, who live in Pasadena, California, and her three brothers—Harold, of Visalia, California; Howard, of Oregon, Illinois; and Glenn, of Kansas City, Kansas. Indeed, the better part of those on the Clutters’ Thanksgiving guest list were either telephoned or telegraphed, and the majority set forth at once for what was to be a family reunion not around a groaning board but at the graveside of a mass burial.
At the Teacherage, Wilma Kidwell was forced to control herself in order to control her daughter, for Susan, puffy-eyed, sickened by spasms of nausea, argued, inconsolably insisted, that she must go—must run—the three miles to the Rupp farm. “Don’t you see, Mother?” she said. “If Bobby just hears it? He loved her. We both did. I have to be the one to tell him.”
But Bobby already knew. On his way home, Mr. Ewalt had stopped at the Rupp farm, and consulted with his friend Johnny Rupp, a father of eight, of whom Bobby is the third. Together, the two men went to the bunkhouse—a building separate from the farmhouse proper, which is too small to shelter all the Rupp children. The boys live in the bunkhouse, the girls “at home.” They found Bobby making his bed. He listened to Mr. Ewalt, asked no questions, and thanked him for coming. Afterward, he stood outside in the sunshine. The Rupp property is on a rise, an exposed plateau, from which he could see the harvested, glowing land of River Valley Farm—scenery that occupied him for perhaps an hour. Those who tried to distract him could not. The dinner bell sounded, and his mother called to him to come inside—called until finally her husband said, “No. I’d leave him alone.”
Larry, a younger brother, also refused to obey the summoning bell. He circled around Bobby, helpless to help but wanting to, even though he was told to “go away.” Later, when his brother stopped standing and started to walk, heading down the road and across the fields toward Holcomb, Larry pursued him. “Hey, Bobby. Listen. If we’re going somewhere, why don’t we go in the car? “ His brother wouldn’t answer. He was walking with purpose—running, really—but Larry had no difficulty keeping stride. Though only fourteen, he was the taller of the two, the deeper-chested, the longer-legged, Bobby being, for all his athletic honors, rather less than medium-size—compact but slender, a finely made boy with an open, homely-handsome face. “Hey, Bobby. Listen. They won’t let you see her. It won’t do any good.” Bobby turned on him, and said, “Go back. Go home.” The younger brother fell behind, then followed at a distance. Despite the pumpkin-season temperature, the day’s arid glitter, both boys were sweating as they approached a barricade that state troopers had erected at the entrance to River Valley Farm. Many friends of the Clutter family, and strangers from all over Finney County as well, had assembled at the site, but none were allowed past the barricade, which, soon after the arrival of the Rupp brothers, was briefly lifted to permit the exit of four ambulances, the number finally required to remove the victims, and a car filled with men from the sheriff’s office—men who, even at that moment, were mentioning the name of Bobby Rupp. For Bobby, as he was to learn before nightfall, was their principal suspect.
From her parlor window, Susan Kidwell saw the white cortege glide past, and watched until it had rounded the corner and the unpaved street’s easily airborne dust had landed again. She was still contemplating the view when Bobby, shadowed by his large little brother, became a part of it, a wobbly figure headed her way. She went out on the porch to meet him. She said, “I wanted so much to tell you.” Bobby began to cry. Larry lingered at the edge of the Teacherage yard, hunched against a tree. He couldn’t remember ever seeing Bobby cry, and he didn’t want to, so he lowered his eyes.
Far off, in the town of Olathe, in a hotel room where window shades darkened the midday sun, Perry lay sleeping, with a gray portable radio murmuring beside him. Except for taking off his boots, he had not troubled to undress. He had merely fallen face first across the bed, as though sleep were a weapon that had struck him from behind. The boots, black and steel-buckled, were soaking in a washbasin filled with warm, vaguely pink-tinted water.
A few miles north, in the pleasant kitchen of a modest farmhouse, Dick was consuming a Sunday dinner. The others at the table—his mother, his father, his younger brother—were not conscious of anything uncommon in his manner. He had arrived home at noon, kissed his mother, readily replied to questions his father put concerning his supposed overnight trip to Fort Scott, and sat down to eat, seeming quite his ordinary self. When the meal was over, the three male members of the family settled in the parlor to watch a televised basketball game. The broadcast had only begun when the father was startled to hear Dick snoring; as he remarked to the younger boy, he never thought he’d live to see the day when Dick would rather sleep than watch basketball. But, of course, he did not understand how very tired Dick was, did not know that his dozing son had, among other things, driven over eight hundred miles in the past twenty-four hours. ♦
This was the first part of a four-part series. The pieces became the book “In Cold Blood,” published by Random House.
THE NEW YORKER
In Cold Blood
New York, Ramdon House. 1965, pages 1 - 74
In Cold Blood
New York, Ramdon House. 1965, pages 1 - 74