- Distilled (From)
My cousin Chuck was missing for forty-six days before two fishermen pulled his body from the Sangamon River in Springfield, Illinois, the same place where his father once taught him to swim. Chuck was incarcerated in his teens and he had not been well since prison, but he didn't jump. His hands were tied, his feet bound, his pockets turned out, emptied for cash.
I was days away from my fifteenth birthday when they found him, the translucent fish line tight across his chest. I didn't know much about autopsy reports, but I was old enough to know they seemed useless: his body now a part of the river, his casket closed with a clasp. Soon I learned three men murdered Chuck. Two of the men were brothers, the other a friend of the brothers. Chuck drank with the three men all night, stumbling together into one Midwest corner tavern after another. At the end of the night, the men robbed him and killed him. Later, a judge handed out sixty-five year sentences and called the men "cold-blooded killers."
But one of the men convicted will appeal, and he will win. The other two will eventually follow him out of prison, time served. It turns out sixty-five years is closer to thirty. One will die in a bed near [End Page 51] the home where Chuck was born. The other may be at Walmart right now. Every year, my cousin Kay drives to the river on the anniversary of Chuck's death. She kneels at the bank in the mud and asks for a way to forgive them. She prays they never hurt anyone else. As far as I know, this prayer has been answered.
At Chuck's funeral, one of his brothers told us Chuck's boots were still on, and I joined those in my family who thought of this as an accomplishment. Most of the men in my mother's family worked with their hands, broke their boots in with work. Chuck wandered over forty days in a desert of water, sucker-punched and bound, his hands and feet tied with strips from his own shirt. He might not have been able to overcome those who beat him and tossed him to his death, but he was able to keep what was his own. I was too young to know "die with your boots on" is a cliché—a soldier's honor—but I felt the pride of the men in my family. I claimed it as my own.
It will be more than thirty years before I read the court transcripts and learn it wasn't true. Chuck didn't die with his boots on. He wore shoes that night, and, on the way to the river, the men who killed him threw them out of the car window.
Chuck died with his socks on.
At the funeral, it didn't occur to me that we all need a story when one of us loses a fight this large. If I had also been told that a can of beer was still in Chuck's jacket, I would have believed that, too. I would have smiled.
I would have been proud.
The desire for booze runs in my mother's family, thicker than blood. Some of us water it down and some of us of drown in it, but almost all of us hear it calling. We sense the river behind us, even if we stand sober at its shore. Today, as I sip tea, I crave a glass of wine.
We do not use the word "alcoholic." We do not mention "genetic tendencies." We call ourselves "social drinkers," and many of us are. The women worry the most about their sons. When I was small, the women categorized the men who drank too much as "heavy drinkers" and shifted them into sub-groups: "good drunks" or "bad [End Page 52] drunks." We kids brought the good drunks beer, and their sisters bought them mugs for their birthdays. When a bad drunk lost a job or beat his wife, the women shook their heads...