It was nearing December. Most of the leaves that were going to fall off the trees already had, so I was raking the vacant lot next door to us. We’d lived in our house for fourteen years, and I’d never met the owner. Our subdivision had once been forest, so with the amount of trees, the grass never grew tall enough to necessitate mowing. Fall was a bitch, however, and all the leaves that fell from the multitude of Oaks next door inevitably wound up in my yard if I didn’t rake it. It was a sizable lot, I was already twenty trash bags in at noon, but I was getting close to being finished. Tree roots kept snagging the rake. My wife had suggested that I just blow the leaves, but I had a thing against leaf blowers. Why use something that pollutes the air to pick up something that pollutes the ground? It seemed insane. Plus, every time my neighbors on the other side had their landscaping crew do the yard, all of their leaves got blown into my yard. It pissed me off beyond reason. It was the little things.
My rake caught on another tree root. I would probably have to give up and buy a new one after this. I could feel the handle starting to loosen from the rake. Damn cheap manufacturing. I swept the rake over the area I was working on one more time, catching it again on the root. But when I looked closer, I realized it wasn’t a tree root my rake was snagging on. It was a human finger.
I promptly dropped the rake and looked closer. Yep, that’s what it was - a gray finger, complete with nail.
I ran into my tool shed and grabbed a spade. I hollered at my wife, “Maribel, get over here! There’s something I need you to see!”
I didn’t really think she’d be able to hear me through the windows and the sound of the TV blaring inside. I ran back to the lot. I hesitated when I got to the spot. I went back to the shed and grabbed some gloves. I didn’t want to touch the thing, and I assumed that the police would get involved soon.
When I was returning from the shed for the second time, Maribel was coming out of the front door, wrapping her sweater around her. “What’s all the yelling about?” she asked.
“Come over here. I want you to tell me what I’m seeing so I know I haven’t lost my marbles,” I said, motioning her to the vacant lot.
When we came to the area where I’d dropped the rake, I pointed at the ground. “What does that look like to you?”
She bent down for a closer look. “Oh, my God, that looks just like a decaying finger! Bert, how in the world do you think that got there?”
“I don’t know, but I’m gonna dig around it to see if there’s any more.”
“I sure hope there’s not any more!”
“Well, Maribel, it’s just sticking up out of the ground. Unless it’s some kind of prank left over from Halloween, I would imaging there are more fingers in the ground.” I knelt on my sore knees and started carefully moving the dirt away from the finger. The earth was damp and soft, so very soon I came upon an adjoining knuckle and a middle finger. Then I unearthed the entire top of a hand.
“I think we better call the police,” I said, looking up at her.
“I think probably so,” she answered.
Within an hour, there were three squad cars parked in the road, and the area of the vacant lot had been completely taped off, including my bags of leaves and rake. The medical examiner and crime scene investigators were on the way.
Maribel was clanging around in the kitchen making lunch. I sat down at the breakfast table while she made sandwiches for the two of us. “So who do you think that is, buried next door to us?” she wondered.
“I have no idea. I’d like to know how long they’ve been there. We’ve lived here a long time. What if someone buried them since we’ve lived here? What if we were at home when it happened? It makes me a little concerned about the neighborhood, to be completely frank.”
“Honey, you’re not Frank, and I’m not Earnest.” She set a plate down in front of me and sat down next to me. “I wouldn’t start going and suspecting the neighbors until we know who, when, and why.”
I thanked her for the lunch and dug in. “I’m kinda mad about the fact that I’m going to have to re-rake all those leaves.”
Maribel laughed, “That’s what you’re concerned about? I mean, I know it already took you the better part of three months to procrastinate your way into doing it, but a person’s dead, honey.”
“Well, why the hell did they have to die in the middle of my leaf pile?”
About a week and a half later, we got a call from the detective in charge of the case. The police had almost completely dug up the lot next door, thinking there may have been another body over there. With a gaping hole over there, leaves were the least of my worries. It was still a crime scene, so we weren’t even allowed to cross the tape.
“Mr. Jackson? This is Detective Bergeron. Do you have a minute?”
“For you, Detective, I have two.”
“Great. Listen, I wanted to give you an update on the body we found in the lot next door to your house. We’ve started the forensics, and we believe that it was a fifty to sixty year old male. Looked like he’d been in the ground around nine years. Cause of death was blunt-force trauma. I hate to ask, but it’s my job. Would you or your wife happen to know anything about this?”
“No, of course not, Detective. I was just as surprised as you were to find a dead body buried beneath the leaf pile that I rake up a couple of times a year. Why would it have just now come to the surface?” I asked, turning the tables.
“More than likely, it’s due to rain. We have a really shallow water table, as I’m sure you know, and the rain tends to wash away the top layer of soil. Did y’all have any flooding on your street last Spring?”
“Actually, we did. Didn’t come in the house, though, thank Jesus,” I said.
“That probably did it. Was this the first time since then you’d picked up the leaves?”
“Yes, sir,” I said, embarrassed and hearing Maribel’s voice in my head about procrastinating.
“That’ll do it, then. I’ll be calling your wife a little later today to talk with her. Gotta cover all the bases, you understand.”
“Of course. I’m sure she doesn’t know anything about it, either, though.”
“I’m sure you’re probably right. Just doing my job,” he reiterated. But if anything occurs to you, please give me a call, will you?”
“Sure will, Detective. Thanks for keeping us in the loop.”
“Did Detective Bergeron call you?” Maribel asked at dinner.
“Yep, he sure did. Sounds like it was a man about our age.”
“Blunt-force trauma. I guess that means murder, right?” she asked.
“I would assume so, since he wasn’t in a graveyard. If his family was making a workman’s comp claim, I’d guess he’d be in a more proper place. One with a head stone,” I said.
“Oh, his poor family!” Maribel said. “Can you imagine?”
“Honestly, I have a hard time imagining anything, with as little as we know. We don’t know that he even had a family. Wouldn’t there have been a missing persons alert?”
“There could have been. It’s been a long time,” she said. “Honey, don’t you think we should help get to the bottom of this?”
“No, I do not,” I said, putting down my fork. “Let the police do their job. You’re not Angela Lansbury.”
“I know that, but aren’t you a little bit curious?”
“Sure, but I also know that sticking my nose in a police investigation isn’t going to help anyone. Including you, dear.”
“Mrs. Jackson, we’d like for you to come with us to the police station to answer some questions,” Detective Bergeron said. It was three days after we’d gotten the call about the details of the body, and the police were at our front door.
“Am I under arrest?” she asked.
“No, ma’am, not at this time.”
“What’s this about?” I asked.
“We’ll explain it all at the station,” the detective answered.
“I’ll call John and meet you there,” I said. “Go ahead Maribel. Find out what’s going on.” John Blankenship was our attorney and one of my oldest friends.
As I followed my wife to the police station, a million questions went through my mind. Did the man we found next door have a link to us in some way, after all?
When they released Maribel two hours later, she’d been crying.
“What happened?” I asked.
“We need to talk,” she said. My stomach rolled over. “Let’s go home.”
I nodded forcibly. Even after thirty-five years of marriage, the words we need to talk scared me.
When we got home, she led me to the breakfast room table, the scene of so many conversations. Something told me that this one would change everything between us, though.
She wasted no time. “Do you remember that convention I had to go on about ten years ago? The one in Vegas?”
I nodded. She’d been so excited about it, even though we’d been to Vegas four times before.
“Well, I didn’t go to the convention. I was having an affair. I’m so sorry, Bert. I was hoping you’d never find out. And it had been so long, it was looking like that might be a good possibility.”
Her words punched me in the gut. “What does this have to do with the police?”
She swallowed. Then she got up and got two glasses of water. When she came back to the table, she didn’t sit. “The man they found next door was who I was having an affair with.”
I stood up so fast that I accidentally tipped the table, and both glasses of water spilled. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! Maribel, did you kill that man?” I pointed next door, as if he were still there.
“No! Of course not!” she said. She grabbed a towel and started wiping up the water. “But I was involved with him. I guess someone knew, and that’s why they brought me in for questioning.”
“There are a lot of missing pieces here, Maribel. Why don’t you fill them in for me?” I sat back down before my knees could give out.
She went on to explain that she had been seeing this guy, Tom Harvey, for about six months before he started acting weird. He had gotten possessive, and she had broken it off with him - not out of guilt, mind you, but she’d been afraid I’d find out - and he’d become even more possessive. He’d started stalking her, and then one day, she’d told him to leave her alone or she would call the police. He just disappeared, and she’d never heard anything from him again. She assumed he’d gotten the message. I had a feeling the message had been delivered a little more abruptly than her story indicated.
“Is there anything else?” I asked when she was finished.
She was crying. “No,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry, Bert.”
“Yeah, so am I. I’m sorry you felt the need to cheat on me. I’m sorry you thought you had to keep it a secret all this time. But most of all, I’m sorry you had to murder someone to keep it quiet.” I got up and grabbed my keys. “I’m going to Roberta’s. Do not call me. I need some time.”
“Bert, I didn’t kill anyone.”
“Save it for the trial,” I said, meaner than I meant.
When I got to our eldest daughter’s house, Maribel had already called ahead and filled her in. She had a plate of food waiting for me. I swear, the women in this family have always treated grief and crisis with food. It’s a wonder none of us are as big as a house.
Even though I wasn’t hungry, I sat down and pushed the food around. “Did you know about this?” I asked, pointing at Roberta with my fork.
Roberta nodded, not looking at me.
“Oh, you have got to be kidding me! You, too?! Do the boys know? What about Grandma? Does my eighty-seven year old mother know, too? How many of you have been keeping secrets from me?” I tossed the fork onto the table, and bits of meatloaf flew into the air. I pushed the plate away from me, convinced that the mashed potatoes had been conspiring against me, too.
“No one else knows, Daddy. Just Momma and me. But there’s something else that she doesn’t know.”
“Well, enlighten me. How could there possibly be anything else?”
“I killed Tom Harvey,” she said.
“Excuse me?” I said. I couldn’t have heard her right. “Who killed Tom Harvey.” I felt my mind slipping away.
“I did, Daddy. He wouldn’t leave Momma alone. The day she threatened to call the police, he showed up at your house. I was there, and I didn’t think. I went to the tool shed and grabbed a shovel. He was drunk and yelling for Momma. I couldn’t get him to shut up. So I hit him over the head with it. I didn’t think it would kill him.”
“How does your mother not know about this?”
“Y’all were out at dinner.”
“So you just commit murder while we’re out at DINNER??”
“It wasn’t that simple. I hit him over the head and dragged him next door. You hadn’t raked up the leaves yet that year, so I buried him under the leaves. You really need to rake earlier in the year, Dad.” I gave her a look. “Anyway,” she continued, “I figured he’d wake up with a headache, get an Uber, and go back home. Problem was, he never woke up. When I came back in the middle of the night to check on him, he wasn’t breathing, and he’d gone stiff. I guess it was a good thing I already had the shovel. I buried him, and that was that. Mom never asked, and I never said anything. She seemed relieved that he’d finally left her alone. Y’all went back to being married, and we thought that was the end of it.”
“So what do we do now? The police have linked your mother with this man.”
“I know. I never thought that would happen.”
“It’s not like we can hide the body again. Man, y’all are dumb. Why didn’t you call the police when this all happened? You could have claimed self-defense.”
“It all happened so fast,” Roberta said.
“And now it looks like first-degree murder,” I said. I sighed. “You know what? I’m done. You and your mother got yourself into this, and you can get yourself out.” I stood up and grabbed my keys for the second time that night.
“Where are you going?” Roberta trotted after me.
“Frankly, my dear, I have no idea. But I’m getting as far away from this situation as my tank of gas will take me. And then I’ll fill up and keep on going.”