The Minister’s Handyman
She had been a disc jockey with her own morning show on one of the big stations in Tidewater, Virginia. A great voice, fans would later say. A real professional, they would add. She had a classical command of elocution, which she effortlessly bent into a rock ’n’ roll delivery, husky and lived-in, a little weathered, worldly. She had worked hard to achieve her position in radio, but for some reason, three weeks before it happened, she quit the best gig she’d ever had. Folks speculated about a soured relationship, a lost pregnancy, maybe depression. But she was dead before anyone found out exactly why she quit.
I remember her killer. He had a voice like an air bubble purged through a rusty spigot, all scratchy throat and hard, guttural wheeze. He had bristle-like red hair and bad teeth, and whenever I used to see him—or what I remember about him now, these many years later—is that he would smile in a way that you could see the struggle he was going through to keep his top lip from rising up like a stage curtain and revealing those yellow and black—those sharply crooked—choppers. I remember kids in my city said he killed dogs and cats, that he and his brother were caught in the woods “doing it” to each other—which I heard about before I knew what “doing it” referred to. I think there was a grain of truth in the gossip about him. Maybe a little more than a grain.
Since I’m putting this together from old news articles and scant facts, let’s speed up the narrative cause-and-effect, forego mimesis for a little diegesis, and say she was “going through something,” and that’s why she quit her job and was spending so much time tending her garden for those three jobless weeks. The garden was a rented plot of land in a Hampton city park. She grew tomatoes, cucumbers, okra, green beans, and peppers. She went there every morning, not long after dawn, when it was quiet and peaceful. And she parked every morning in the same parking lot, so if you were watching her, stalking her, or if you were a person like him on the lookout for a lone woman, she was as consistent as a clock, as solitary as a second hand. I’m sure he thought she was asking for it, alone and working and sweating like that. As he watched her, he kept his lips closed tight over his teeth, as if she could see them from her position fifty yards away, bent over her rows of vegetables, possibly thinking about the reasons she quit her job. He always imagined people were thinking about him, and thinking the very worst things, judging him, the way neighbors and teachers and cops had done throughout his entire life.
I knew him, in a way, like all the kids in my middle and high schools knew him, the way one knows a dubious story or legend or myth. He spoke to me a few times—“Move” or “What are you looking at, asshole?”—and each time a pulse of fear thumped in my temples. He was infamous, his family was infamous. Once, so a story I’ve heard goes, he and his brother and his father got into a fight at the trailer park where they lived on the edge of the city, along a muddy, foul-smelling creek. They had been drinking, even though the boys were only teenagers (both were functioning alcoholics by the time they were fourteen, as were a number of kids I knew back then). Someone said something, brother insulted brother, something like that. Fists thrown. Chairs hurled. The father, as the fight escalated, ended the night, or ended the part of the night before the police lights went slinging around the trailer park, by running one of the sons over with his old Ford truck. But somehow he—whomever got run over—just ended up bruised and battered. The cops were called, but everyone was okay, no one needed to go to the hospital, so no charges were filed. The father said that yes, he did want to kill his son there for a moment, fucker deserved to have his head ripped off, but now he was over that feeling and just felt like having another beer and going to bed. The cops in my city did not like to waste time on paperwork when this sort of family squabbled, even if they did so nearly to the death.
Another time I saw him and his brother beat a kid nearly to death in the woods outside of our high school, which was uncannily like the high school in Richard Linklater’s great film Dazed and Confused—knee to face, head to tree, boot stomps on the sternum, air out of the victim’s mouth like the sound of slow shredding paper. I was maybe fourteen or fifteen. I only saw a moment of that fight, if you could call it that (“assault” would be a better word),walking quickly toward a parking lot, trying to get out of there and not to see it or be a part of it. But even so, later at home, I wretched up a little of my cowardice and the memory of all that blood.
Just before and then after the murder, before he was apprehended, a local minister, a trusting man who tried to see the best in people, housed him for several weeks without knowing he was guilty. The minister hired him as the new church handyman. He did odd jobs for a room and minimal pay. He was only in his early twenties, and the minister believed the job would help him both practically and spiritually. The minister later spoke up for his handyman, told the police he was a decent young man in many ways, not the monster they would assume, at least not all the time. He told them the handyman had come to God and turned his back, or tried to turn his back, on his wicked ways—most of them. And I believe that is true, that the handyman, once he had murdered, was struggling mightily those days, working at the church, to stop being who he was, a kid and then a man from a family of criminals—cursed, doomed, almost sentenced from birth to cause destruction and then be destroyed, to spend his life in jail or die early (thus not worth the cops’ paperwork unless a real citizen was involved). Both the minister and the handyman believed in original sin and they believed in the devil and they believed in fate, which were not good things to believe in, really, when all evidence from your past pointed to the worst possible outcome.
At first, the handyman told the minister he had never seen the woman, said it was just horrible what had happened. But the minister noticed one day how he, the handyman, was going to the 7-Eleven and buying the morning paper and keeping up with all the stories that were being published in the days after the rape and murder, after the ex-disc jockey was found on the edge of a ditch near the public gardens where she went every morning for some peace and quiet. The church was very near to the gardens. The minister had noticed his handyman’s nervousness lately. The handyman’s facial expression, from morning to night, whether he was repainting old radiators or weed whacking around the gray metal fence by the playground, was “What? Me?” A curious way to look, the minister thought. The minister began spending time standing at church windows and watching his handyman. It appeared to the minister as if the handyman was waiting for cop cars to pull into the parking lot. The handyman looked at every vehicle that passed. Odd.
The handyman had thrown some dirt over top of the dead DJ in a rushed and abandoned attempt to hide the body. The minister, once he began thinking about it through sleepless nights, once the pieces started coming together, imagined the morning of the murder, the morning the handyman came back to the church. He would have been sweating, his boots covered in rich gardening dirt, one small scratch across his neck, near his jugular vein, all of which could have been innocent and explainable but seemed less and less likely to be so.
It was a pitiful crime committed by a pitiful criminal—a sexual impulse followed through with extreme violence. The handyman killed the woman, the paper reported, with her own hoe.
The minister, one night after watching the chief of police make a plea for any information about the rape and murder on the local five o’clock news, went to his new handyman above the rectory and asked him about the crime. The minister felt God with him. He was not nervous. The two men sat on the cot, the one piece of furniture in the room. Did you do it, son? The minister found out almost immediately that the handyman had raped and then beaten the woman with his bare fists and, finally, to finish the job—she fought and she was very hard to kill—with her favorite gardening hoe. The minister also found out—because he was a patient listener—that it all happened as if in a dream, a fit of horrible impulse and rage the handyman could not control. He learned that the handyman had been—this will not surprise you—molested as a child, but his world was so upside down and dangerous he had never thought of it as abuse—he thought of it as normal. The handyman had been doing so well, too, he told the minister while choking back sobs, tears streaming down his face, and he liked working for the minister at the church, fixing things, mowing the lawn. He liked being in the church, a very special place, because he believed that maybe God could help him to not be who he was, who he had been made into, an animal of sorts—that’s how he saw himself sometimes, as a predator with jagged, rotting teeth—given to fits of blind, senseless rage and then immense, almost suicidal sorrow over whatever it was he had done. He said he could control himself most of the time, but every once in a while something overcame him, something he had started to believe was the devil. He told the minister that there was nothing he would like better than to stay in the room above the rectory, to be able to sleep on his cot at night and listen to the minister preach on Sunday about the ways of sin and the possibility of redemption, and then work through the week painting and repairing and thinking about God and the minister’s message. The minister, in a calm voice, told the handyman that unfortunately that was no longer possible.
I think the minister was in great danger at this point—the moment of the confession, I mean. He had a murderer and rapist in his church, a desperate and defeated man unable to control his rage, a sick and sharp-toothed predator, a man with the evil some call the devil inside him, coiled to spring forth. Anything could have happened. But the minister put his hand on the hand of the handyman and he suggested that they pray together for guidance, which they did. The minister promised the handyman that he would help him, would walk him to the police station, which was not far from the city garden or the church, where the handyman could make his confession, a confession to the police but also a confession before God, who was the only one, the minister said, who had the power to forgive him.
In the years after that, the minister spoke to the handyman once a month or so in prison and would conduct a bible study with him over the phone. During these bible study sessions the minister would recite excerpts from his sermons from the previous month of Sundays. This was a promise the minister had made to the handyman, a condition of the handyman turning himself in. The minister was sickened in his soul by the whole ordeal, of course he was, he was human after all, but he had made a promise and would keep it. And he would carry on and keep up appearances. He was a man of the cloth. He was a man of his word.
After the trial, the minister started his own plot at the community garden, which was another promise he had made and kept—but this one only to himself—and every morning he worked for an hour on what would become impressive and bountiful rows of vegetables, almost all of which he gave to homeless shelters and the neediest people in his congregation. After gardening each morning, the minister went to the ditch, to the very spot where his former handyman and tenant had raped and murdered the ex-disc jockey, and said a prayer for the woman, for the murderer, and especially for himself, because after the crime he became secretly filled with doubt about whether people, capable of such evil deeds and such naiveté about the evil in others, were not culpable beyond God’s forgiveness.
Greg Bottoms is the author of six books, including the memoir Angelhead (U. of Chicago Press), the recent essay collection Spiritual American Trash: Portraits from the Margins of Art and Faith (Counterpoint Press), and Pitiful Criminals (Counterpoint Press), a graphic collection of memoirs and stories, with drawings by artist W. David Powell. He teaches creative writing at the University of Vermont, where he is Professor of English.