Have You Seen Me?™

Mother will hide the murderer….

Mother will stay Mum.

            —Kate Bush, “Mother Stands for Comfort”

 

The right perception of any matter and a misunderstanding of the same matter do not wholly exclude each other.

            —Franz Kafka, The Trial

 

 

morning, 3 November 1988

 

I have never held the bat, the murder weapon, but I can easily imagine how it felt in my daughter’s hands. Its grip, a rubbery coil of royal blue tape, must have been sticky—the Mississippi Gulf Coast was in the midst of a humidity-drenched heatwave. The bat was lightweight, made of aluminum, and rang out when it connected with the softball. It must have sounded the same dull note when it connected with Darl Gable’s skull.

It happened more than five years ago, in July 1983. Jordan—who persists in going by Jordie, a derivative ugly with mediocrity—was twelve at the time; her thirteen-year-old victim lived down the street from us on Hermosa Drive. Unimaginable, it was called, an inaccurate descriptor, denoting only an inability to conceive of such a crime until after it had occurred. The more the details in the case emerged, the more often the term was applied—unimaginable—meaning instead that one’s imagination was held in thrall, that the burden of reconstructing the event convincingly then fell to the imagination.

But I see I am getting ahead of myself.

I have most often imagined the possibilities of that day while I am in what used to be Jordan’s room. I go inside intending only to clean, to run the vacuum over a carpet still striped from the previous vacuuming, to sweep spiderwebs from the ceiling corners, to pass a soft cloth over the furniture or along the tops of frames. But when I draw aside the curtains to dust the windowsills, I inevitably remember the morning after Darl’s murder, before I knew there had been a murder, when I found the west-facing window open, the screen askew, and thought little of it. Eventually I find myself sitting at the foot of Jordan’s bed, the same place Jordan was sitting the day they came to arrest her, and I drift into a trance of remembering until I realize that I’m twisting the dustcloth in my fists, convinced yet again that I have a softball bat in my hands.

I used to enter that same kind of trance while I conducted research at the public library—not at the library where I work, of course, for I did not want to be found out by my colleagues. Nights on end, I hunched before a microfiche machine and devoured the latest news articles. I murmured as I read, mimicking the accents and inflections of the people who were quoted. I could picture the way their mouths shaped the words. The uncomfortable proximity of the murder to our home, coupled with my long acquaintanceship with the dead girl’s family, had inspired me to follow the story from the first. By the time Jordan’s role in the crime came to light, two full months had passed, ample time for me to have memorized the repertoire of gestures and expressions of all the major players in the case. My mind automatically offered me a faithful reproduction.

I copied dozens, even hundreds, of articles from newspapers, magazines, and law journals. I studied them in the privacy of my own home, highlighting some, annotating others. I archived and indexed five boxes’ worth of materials, including court transcripts, medical and psychological reports, student records, and related documents. I stored them all in what was once Jordan’s closet. No sense in letting perfectly good space go to waste.

Every now and then I would take them out and pick them over in search of links I’d missed or hadn’t yet made. But my review yielded no surprises. My interpretation never changed. Time and again I pieced the events together in the same way. I made myself an expert in the case. For all I know, I’m the only one.

Numerous articles, though by no means a majority, proposed that the Gable girl’s death might have been the result of an accident. Some criminal analysts supported the possibility that Jordan was swinging the bat not at Darl Gable but at the dog, the white German shepherd that was attacking the girl. Their blindness puzzles me, but to be fair, I have tried in my mind’s eye to enact the alternatives they suggested. Repeatedly I have fisted my hands as if I were Jordan clutching the bat. Its grip is sticky from the humidity, grimy from the girls’ palms. I first attempt to separate the dog from the girl by bringing the bat down between the two, like an axe to wood on a chopping block. But according to the coroner’s report, Jordan swung across, as if to hit a home run, not down as if to split wood. So I try again. I try to picture swinging at the dog with a force sufficient to shatter its skull. I cannot finish the scene. What stops me is not a failure of imagination; it’s that I know better. Jordan swung the bat not once, not twice, but three or possibly four times, and never made contact with the dog, never even came close. But I don’t need the evidence to convince me Jordan wasn’t swinging at the dog. She loved that dog. And so, in my mind’s eye, every time I swing the bat, it’s Darl Gable I aim for; it’s Darl Gable I can’t help aiming for. The bat I imagine chimes when it strikes her face.

Plainly it was no accident. So what accounts for the residue of doubt in some people’s minds? Perhaps it’s that Jordan never confessed. She faced interrogating officers, her defense attorney, and a range of psychotherapists with mute composure. Not even her counselor at the juvenile correctional institute has succeeded in prying loose Jordan’s version of what happened on the afternoon of 1 July 1983. To this day, the truth lies captive in the steel cage of Jordan’s mind. That leaves me to tell it for her.

It’s no easy task, for the truth has no tenderness. I’ve witnessed firsthand what damage it can do. Only one time have I stated what I believe—or rather, what I know. It slipped out during an argument with my husband about how to handle the media immediately following Jordan’s arrest.

“Silence is golden,” I was telling him.

He retorted, “Silence is also consent, Vera.”

“But Morris, she did it.” As soon as the words were spoken, I shuddered to hear them. I feared that Morris might contest me, and as yet, I had no better proof of Jordan’s guilt than a gut instinct. It was only a week after the arraignment, months remained until the case would be heard and the final verdict announced, but I had already reached my conclusion. Mine was a gestalt-like grasp of the matter: I had enough strands of fact to know what had happened; I needed only weave in common sense and a modicum of guesswork to arrive at a full understanding of how and why it had happened. Any way I chose to look at it, Jordan had blood on her hands.

As it turned out, Morris did not oppose me. I had smacked him with the truth, and indeed, with his dropped jaw and knit eyebrows, he looked as though he had been slapped. He didn’t want to hear what he didn’t want to believe. He didn’t speak to me the rest of that night. That one exchange created between us a tacit agreement never to speak of Jordan’s guilt. Once or twice he put up a fight when he saw me knotting a scarf over my hair in a pretense of anonymity as I prepared to leave on one of my fact-finding missions, but soon, ours became a relationship of long silences interrupted only by talk of groceries, bills, household repairs, and other domestic concerns. For every time I consulted my library of documents for anything I might have overlooked, Morris would plant a new flower bed, weed an old one, or drive to downtown Ocean Springs and park the car and walk on the beach. Denial provided him a kind of anodyne. I, on the other hand, am a realist; I take no comfort in the mind’s illusions. Certainly there have been many times I’ve wanted to share the fruits of my meditations, but what’s the point when he won’t listen to sense?

At any rate, I got my golden silence. We never spoke one word to the media.

It proved a wise decision. In the two months that passed between the day of the murder and Jordan’s arrest, every television news program and newspaper from New Orleans to Pensacola and throughout Mississippi devoted exhaustive coverage to the bathetic rants of Gwen Gable, the dead girl’s mother, and to Gwen’s ex-boyfriend Joseph Randolph Todd, the prime suspect in the case. These effusions backfired, rendering sympathy for Gwen impossible and belief in Joe Todd’s guilt absolute. Later, when Jordan was charged with the slaying, the story gained momentum. Thanks to the influx of reporters from around the nation, hotels in Ocean Springs and Biloxi enjoyed ample post-summer-season profits. The Inn at Ventura del Mar, the resort community where we lived, was booked solid from September 1983 through February 1984; regular winter visitors, the “snowbirds” who migrated south to bask in coastal Mississippi’s balmy climate, had to find lodgings elsewhere. The story owed its sudden national notoriety to the oddities in the case: the alleged perpetrator was twelve, white, female, a gifted student, and an only child from a good family; the murder occurred in a prestigious community in the state famous for its hospitality; and a variety of investigative snafus delayed the arrest of a suspect. A throng of reporters sought comment from Morris and me. But by then, we had witnessed their ravenous dissection of Gwen’s lifestyle and didn’t want to see our decidedly less melodramatic private lives similarly laid bare.

We were fortunate that Jordan was a juvenile, in that investigators were required to protect her identity. There was no mug shot taken of her, and there were laws forbidding the media to publish her name or, by extension, ours without our consent. Yet reporters had no difficulty singling out Jordan as the murderer: She was the only twelve-year-old who lived on Hermosa Drive or anywhere in the vicinity, for that matter. Ventura del Mar’s inhabitants were primarily well-to-do retirees; the community’s population did not include many children. Reporters knew exactly where to find us. Everyone did. And believe me, they came looking. For days on end, whenever Morris and I stepped outside the house, we were met with microphones rammed to our mouths, camera lenses shooting our images that could not be printed without our permission, and tape machines whirring, recording only our silence and the reporters’ greedy exhortations for a statement of any kind.

My refusal to offer any response provoked these strangers to label me cold, arrogant, impenetrable, and unconcerned. One gifted with an above-average vocabulary went so far as to call me monolithic. So be it. I’d sooner be yoked with these modifiers than anyone dare prescribe to me the right reaction to such extraordinary circumstances, especially for the sake of a news story. At bottom, I knew that this perception of sangfroid on my part stemmed from my silence. Although I was convinced of Jordan’s guilt, I hadn’t yet unknotted her motivations in having committed the murder. Simply put, it was not in me to betray her publicly. It is, after all, a mother’s job to protect her child at all costs.

▴ ▴ ▴

I generally reflect on the events of that year after I check the mail on Tuesdays. That’s the day we receive the advertisements with the Have You Seen Me? photos on the back. Each week I study the featured missing person and wonder whether I might someday recognize someone’s face there. Each week what strikes me is the morbidity of the color of ink used to reprint these photographs.

The missing person appears in shades of blue, bloodless blue, a death pigment. It is a color that does not photocopy; it disappears. It is a perverse choice, as if the printer has already determined the likely fate of the missing person.

Darl Gable wasn’t missing long enough to appear on the back of such an advertisement, but almost every time I glance at one, I think of her. I envision her final yearbook photo: that claw of bangs sprayed into place over her forehead, her thick hair bobbing atop her shoulders, the taunting smile, a precocious touch of lip gloss, the flash of braces. No one would have recognized her. The photo bore only a slight resemblance to the incorrigible little tomboy I had encountered. Nevertheless, it was the photo her mother offered to television and newspaper reporters. I imagine the heading Have You Seen Me? with its requisite trademark, then the photograph, then the vital statistics:

 

Name: Darla June Gable

DOB: 3/12/70

Ht.: 5’2”             Wt.: 95 lbs.

Hair: Brown      Eyes: Green

Sex: F                 Date Missing: 7/1/83

From: Ocean Springs, MS

 

Gwen Gable didn’t report her daughter missing until the evening of July Fourth, by which time Darl had been dead for three full days. That should say something about the kind of mother Gwen was. She had sallied off to New Orleans in a fit of pique and whimsy, to get away from her boyfriend—her much younger boyfriend, I might add. She left Darl to take care of herself. The sad truth is that this was nothing new; Darl was accustomed to being left alone. When Gwen returned from her weekend jaunt, Darl was not at home. Thoughtlessly, the child had not left a note. Carelessly, the child had left the sliding glass door unlocked. Meanly, the child did not call. Defiantly, the child did not come home that night—or the next morning. According to all reports, Gwen did not begin to worry about her daughter until later that afternoon. That should say something about the kind of people Gwen and Darl Gable were.

I remember it clearly. Ventura del Mar’s Independence Day community barbecue was well underway. Dozens of residents, perhaps a hundred, had gathered in the park behind the Inn. They were attired in neat, light cotton or linen outfits of red, white, and blue. They sat in lawn chairs clustered under shade trees and fanned themselves with unused paper plates. The sun was ablaze on this cloudless day; its bright reflection on the bayou made the silty water look like a sheet of rusty tin. Now and then, a faint breeze blew; on it floated the tangy-sweet aroma of barbecue sauce and the sulfuric odor of recently detonated firecrackers. These people, my neighbors, were by nature a polite society. Their conversation was a quiet buzz. Even their occasional peals of laughter were marked by decorous restraint.

It was into this mix that Gwen Gable noisily inserted herself. All heads turned as her Mercedes convertible screeched into view and skidded to a stop in the gravel lot near the park. She was out of the car in a flurry, ignoring the attendant telling her not to block other cars. I had never seen Gwen so disheveled. For that matter, I had never seen her disheveled, period. She had on faded straight-legged designer jeans and was braless beneath a purple tank top. She wore no makeup, and her short hennaed hair stood in quills on one side of her head and lay flat on the other. Every neighbor she recognized she approached, clutching at their arms, standing too close. I thought she must be drunk. Not surprisingly, when she leaned over me in my lawn chair, her breath was a hot foul blast. “I can’t find Darl,” she said and took hold of my shoulder. “Have you seen her?” I gripped the edges of the paper plate on my lap so as not to spill its contents while Gwen was shaking me.

Morris amicably offered that we had been at the barbecue since it had begun nearly two hours before and had not seen hide or hair of Darl.

Gwen squatted, knees cracking, to be eye-level with Jordan, who sat cross-legged on the ground. I remember being embarrassed at Jordan’s appearance. A dollop of barbecue sauce had dribbled down her chin, and she had made no effort to wipe it off. Barbecue sauce stained her hands. Her fingernails were rimmed with it. Then there was the problem of her hair. Earlier in the day, I had forbidden her to wear the Indian headband she had fashioned from a leather braid and a blue jay feather. She had had it on all morning, tied so tightly that her hair now swayed inward at her temples and cheeks, exaggerating the peanut shape of her face. Darl Gable had once caricatured Jordan as a chimpanzee, an infuriatingly accurate likeness that I did not want Gwen to notice.

But Gwen was too frenzied to care about such trifles. “Jordie, have you seen Darl?” Jordan forked in a mouthful of baked beans and said nothing. “Did you see her yesterday? Saturday?”

“No, ma’am.” It was not a lie. Jordan had last seen Darl on Friday and didn’t volunteer this fact. So Gwen moved on to the next set of neighbors.

It was the talk of the barbecue that Gwen had left Darl alone, unlooked after, for the entire weekend. No one was alarmed that Darl was unaccounted for—most likely, she was up to no good. Even when the ten o’clock news showed Darl’s yearbook photograph and reported her missing, I didn’t believe any ill had befallen her. Not until two days later, when her brutalized corpse was discovered in an undeveloped area of Ventura del Mar, did any of us consider the possibility of crime in her disappearance.

▴ ▴ ▴

Five years have passed since then. Five years, four months, and two days, to be exact. Today, Thursday, 3 November 1988, marks Jordan’s eighteenth birthday, the day she reaches legal adulthood in the state of Mississippi. It is also the date of her release into society, the date her juvenile record will be expunged as if the crime never occurred. Early this morning, just before daybreak, Morris appeared at the door of what used to be Jordan’s bedroom and found me in my slippers and quilted housecoat. I was seated on the bed with a stack of record albums at my side and one in my lap.

“I was hoping you might change your mind,” he said. He had on khakis and a pale green oxford. His hair was still damp from the shower.

I shook my head no. We’d already discussed this. I’d told him my decision yesterday during the drive home from work. There was, I claimed, still too much left to do. When he asked for details and offered to help, I warned him not to push me. I’d made up my mind, and that was that. I had an image of him signing the paperwork to check Jordan out of the detention center, his large hands trembling over the forms. I didn’t want to witness his nervous excitement, nor could I bear to see him opening his arms to welcome Jordan into freedom. I certainly couldn’t picture myself doing the same. I kept thinking how startling it might be to see her dressed in something other than the garish orange scrubs she’d worn every day of her stay there, pearl training school stenciled in thick black letters across the back, the uniform for girls who had never confessed to their crimes. My reaction to seeing her in street clothes was nothing I could predict and wouldn’t be the stuff of public fodder.

Morris sighed deeply and touched his pants pocket to feel for his keys. “What’s that you’re holding?” he asked.

“One of her old records.” I held it up to show him. On its cover, David Bowie stood bare-chested, his narrow shoulders rounded, boxing gloves raised. The letters of its title were arranged like a sequence of dance steps, footwork for the pugilist in training. Even the brute sport of boxing is choreographed.

“I thought you weren’t going to put any of her old personal items in her room.” The smallest of smiles appeared on Morris’s face as he took note of the albums, the stereo waiting to be set up, the collection of books I’d made room for on the shelves.

I returned the smile, to let him believe we’d reached a truce. “I changed my mind.” It’s true I had no intention of placing any of Jordan’s personal effects in the room. I did not want to give her the wrong idea, to make her feel welcome in the place she made it nearly unbearable for us to live for months after her arrest. But more and more, I became worried that if she were not comfortable in this room, she might seek our company and disturb what peace we’d come to know without her.

Morris looked at his watch and patted the keys in his pocket. “I’m off, then. We’ll see you this afternoon.”

I nodded, and he headed down the hall, whistling an almost cheerful tune. I waited until I heard him back the car out of the garage, and then I looked again at the album in my hands. I didn’t remember buying it for Jordan, but I did remember hearing it over and over, a soundtrack for that fateful summer. Perhaps she’d sneaked to buy it. Perhaps she borrowed it from Darl and never had the chance to return it.

▴ ▴ ▴

By now, Jordan’s involvement in Darl Gable’s death has lost its power to horrify me. I am not one to obsess on the bad things in life; I tend to brush them off like so many pesky flies. But this one took time. It took months for me to become inured to what Jordan had done.

In the first weeks after her arrest, I used to sit in her bedroom, among the girlish pastel things and dainty antiques that furnished it at the time, and struggle to understand why Jordan had not prospered in such an environment. Morris and I had given her everything she had expressed a desire for, and she had spurned it all with one irreversible action. Time and again, one particular memory helped me make sense of her deviation. In sixth-grade science class, Jordan had conducted a photosynthesis experiment to test the impact of music on plant growth. For two weeks, she diligently monitored the progress of three sets of seeds. The control group was watered and placed on a sunny windowsill; these seeds were expected to shoot up and bend toward the light. A second set of seeds was watered but left otherwise undisturbed in a dark closet; they were expected barely to break the surface of the soil. The third set was watered, kept in sunlight, and placed before a stereo speaker for two hours of music daily; these seeds were expected to rise up hardy and bright healthy green. But Jordan had no thumb for gardening. The three sets of data she charted featured no significant distinctions. The three sets of sprouts drooped uniformly pale.

Jordan brought the plants to school, described the nature of the experiment, and pointed to the graph she had plotted on bright yellow poster board to illustrate the sprouts’ divergence from the hypothetical outcome. Despite performing the experiment correctly, she received a C. She had never before made anything other than an A in science. She cried over the grade. She was inconsolable, humiliated. Morris attempted to mollify her: it was the experiment that had gone wrong, he explained; it wasn’t her fault.

I typically recall this episode when I consider my role in the first twelve years of Jordan’s life. I watched her with a vigilance much like the attention she gave to her science experiment. Morris and I gave Jordan water and light and shelter, we gave her everything purported to be good for her, yet she did not grow and thrive in the expected way. Instead, she leaned away like a wan, limp sprout that could not be coaxed to take on color or strength. The failure—for that is how our “experiment” is widely perceived—did not lie with us. But we had no one to sit beside us in our humility, to stroke our hands and reassure us that some fluke or quirk, some exception to the rule, someone or something not ourselves was to blame for the unforeseeable outcome.

Lately, with the approach of Jordan’s release date, the story of Darl Gable’s murder has again made headlines. Gwen Gable’s latest boyfriend, a Republican of some local standing, has structured his campaign around the need for reform in Mississippi’s juvenile justice system. At every turn, he yammers about the absence of accountability in delinquent offenders and the necessity of answering adult crimes with adult punishments. His noisemaking has resulted in regular news coverage across the tri-state area, and a recent issue of Harper’s refers to the case in a lengthy exposé touching on the many complexities of juvenile crime. Yet again Morris and I have been pestered by phone calls; yet again we have had to change our number and screen our calls over the answering machine. Reporters have recently approached both of us at our places of employment. As before, we’ve kept our heads lowered—but not with shame, mind you; the gesture protects our privacy. Asked for comment, we’ve said nothing.

It’s not a wonder, then, that these past few weeks have found me yet again mulling over memories and facts, reconsidering plausible, even highly probable scenarios culminating in the coup de grâce that ended one life and changed many others. I am tempted to let the adage A mother knows explain how I arrived at what might seem a harsh conclusion, my unfaltering acceptance that Jordan murdered Darl, but I would be contradicting myself. I was initially as mystified at having to conceive of Jordan in that awful light as she was baffled by the drooping sprouts of her science experiment. “The seeds were bad,” I heard Morris tell her, and that was how I came to think of Jordan, as a bad seed. But there was no plain manifestation of badness until the day she committed the murder. In her dealings with Morris and me—in her dealings with all adults, for that matter—she was courteous and obedient. I made the mistake of believing those qualities came naturally to her. Her courtesy, however, amounted to no more than a rote recital of yes ma’ams and no sirs. Neither was her obedience innate; it was, instead, the performance of a trained dog seeking treats.

Jordan, it seems, was simply going through the motions of childhood, so convincingly that I was blindsided when she was exposed as Darl’s murderer. I knew from the gut that this new view showed me Jordan at her most real. It was, in effect, a flipping over of the impassive stone to find there, wriggling in the stinking slime of its underside, pinkish-pale worms and dark sinister beetles. One simply does not want to allow for such ugly possibilities, and at the time I had no way of comprehending how Jordan had moved from point A, child, to point B, murderer.

Time has been my best teacher. Five, six years ago, I stood too close in relationship to Jordan to see her for who she truly was. The closer we stand to someone, the more slippery that person’s image becomes. Maintaining focus requires a crossing of the eyes, which is an unnatural, painful way of seeing, so we tend either to let the image blur or to shut our eyes. We shut our eyes when we kiss the person with whom we are most intimate. We make love in the dark. We don’t want to risk the violation that comes with looking upon a distorted, too-close, ugly image. We must keep each other at arm’s length, at the very least, in order to keep a clear focus. Enforcing such distance with members of one’s own family, however, is nearly impossible.

When she murdered the Gable girl, Jordan was only a blurry outline of a child to me. The past five years have given me ample time to cull memories and observations of incidents that, when they first occurred, did not strike me with their particular salience. Granted, I have had to take occasional liberties in linking these incidents with the facts in the case. I have had to project myself into other perspectives—to slip into others’ skin, as it were, just as I have wrapped my hands around an invisible bat—in order to reconstruct what I did not witness. Today, as Jordan’s record is wiped clean and the past nullified as if it never occurred, I have one last opportunity to piece together these shards of narrative into a cohesive version of the truth, a feat that now comes easily to me. What at first seemed unimaginable has over time shown itself to be inevitable, and putting it all together is less a matter of creative license than it is the consequence of simple deductive reasoning. The mind can correctly discern the whole of a thing by looking at some of its parts, just as the eye can accurately perceive what should fill in the gaps of a puzzle with some of its pieces missing. And finally, I have hindsight on my side, twenty-twenty hindsight that enables me now to see Jordan, as she was, in sharp relief.


Marisa P. Clark is a queer Southerner whose writing appears in Cream City Review, Nimrod, Epiphany, Foglifter, Potomac Review, Rust + Moth, and others, with work forthcoming in Louisiana Literature, Ponder Review, and elsewhere. She was twice the winner of the Agnes Scott College Writers’ Festival Prizes (in fiction, 1996; in nonfiction, 1997). The Best American Essays 2011 recognized her creative nonfiction among its Notable Essays. She reads fiction for New England Review and makes her home in New Mexico with three parrots and two dogs.

Read Marisa’s essay about writing this novel, “Vera and I: On POV, Projection, and a Problem Narrator”