Robyn Parnell: “The Assassin,” an Excerpt from Looking Up

 Sunday May 23, 1999

Everything has a price, but few things are valued.

The morning after Cheryl’s funeral JD awoke at six-thirty with one of his wife’s aphorisms roosting in his mind. He thought at first Ciela had whispered it to him, but she was still asleep. She’d kicked off the covers and was lying on her side, facing him, one arm draped across her knee, the other tucked underneath her head. In that position the curve of Ciela’s neck seemed not only normal but alluring, and JD scooted over in the bed. He saw that Ciela’s eyelids and nose twitched in R.E.M. reverie. Judging from the up-curve of her lips it was a good dream, and he decided to let her enjoy it.

It was JD’s second morning wakeup, only slightly less pleasurable than the first one, hours earlier, when he’d been stirred from a dark, fitful sleep by Ciela. Her warm feet massaged the backs of his knees and moved down to his calves, her long, slender toes intertwining with his. She’d spooned her torso around his back and nibbled his shoulder blades, softly, then insistently.

I can’t reach your neck, she whisper-laughed.

They’d made love for the first time since The Incident that had left Ciela with her neck stuck in permanent tilt-mode. Their lack of post-Incident sexual intimacy was something they hadn’t discussed, not even once, JD realized, as he rolled out of bed and padded to the bathroom. Pulling on his socks, underwear and sweatpants, he enumerated the episodes of the past six weeks: a blur of tests, doctor’s visits and now what?s…and Cheryl’s death. The blur seemed manageable if not under control – what choice did they have, other than to live through what needed to be lived through? – even as it obscured his awareness that he and Ciela had seemingly lost the desire for desire.

Ciela had said nothing to JD during Cheryl’s funeral service, and very little at the reception. She was silent in the car on the way home, save for affirmative grunts when he made dinner suggestions. JD searched the bowels of their garage freezer and found one remaining container of Ciela’s homegrown tomato and roasted red pepper soup. They sat at the kitchen table, Ciela cupping her hands around her steaming mug (she wanted her soup in a large coffee mug, no spoon) while JD over-enthusiastically slurped from his own bowl and marveled at how last season’s batch still tasted as fresh as when Ciela had first made it. JD continued to stumble for conversation but Ciela would have no part in it. She said she was tired, and wanted to go to sleep. And she did, almost immediately, although it was only nine-thirty and JD had never known Ciela to get to sleep before eleven.

JD had stayed up, sipping a bitter herbal concoction whose teabag label read Mountain Rose but whose taste proclaimed dried lawn clippings. His book bag appeared to have retched its contents across the kitchen table; he attempted to grade the papers upon which his eyes refused to focus. It was past midnight when he made his way upstairs. He thought he would never get to sleep; he thought he would never, ever in his life have another good night’s sleep. And then it was later, darker, and something was pulling him back from the shadows, silently calling out to him. Someone who knew his name was putting herself around him, and through him.

JD tip-toed out of the bathroom, carrying his walking shoes. He hesitated at the doorway. Ciela rolled over and sighed, and JD’s knees almost buckled with another realization: Ciela was a habitual nocturnal mutterer, yet he hadn’t heard her talk in her sleep for six weeks. He stepped toward the bed. Ciela, still asleep, smiled and mumbled, “Yes, we will.”

JD’s decision to sear the moment into his memory overcame his desire to strip off his layers and melt back into the bed. He doubted that anything he could do to her or for her could improve the look on her face.

The front door lock squealed in protest when he turned the key. The sun was already out, although soon to be hidden again, judging from the assembly of clouds drifting in from the west. JD cleared the porch steps in one bound and jogged down the driveway, toward the end of the street, exhaling vapor puffs in the still-frosty, late spring morning.

Yes. Yes, we will.

* * *

JD pulled his hood up, down and then back up again at least six times before he arrived at Rivercrest State Park. Although he didn’t like to compromise his peripheral vision his ears tingled in the chilly air, and the woolen cap he kept in his sweatshirt pocket had gone AWOL. His regular walk schedule had become anything but, and he chided himself for going soft, so quickly. Ear-tingling, in May? He flexed his fingers inside his gray fleece mittens and assured himself that his schedule would return to normal, because that is what he willed it to be. It would have to be a new normal, all things considered, but then, that is what normal would become.

JD walked the campsite loop to the trail that started behind the restrooms. He took a quick sip from the drinking fountain outside the restroom and headed up the pathway, toward the abandoned fire pit. After only three paces on the familiar, spongy, leaf-matted trail JD felt as if he were on the way to greet a long-lost friend. Such a morning was fit for paying homage to the old cedars and firs. Whatever else he did or did not believe in, when he was beneath their arboreal canopy JD knew he was close to a thin place.

It was gut knowledge, the kind which strikes as recognition rather than revelation, when JD heard about that ancient Celtic concept. Seth Aronson, one of Clark Middle School’s guidance counselors, had been reading An Irish Approach to Celtic Spirituality in the teachers’ lounge. JD commented on Seth’s esoteric choice for lunch hour relaxation and Seth promptly offered to lend him the book, first intriguing him by reading aloud a passage about “thin places.”

The ancient Celts believed that certain physical sites had a unique proximity to both heaven and earth, and to the past and present. These “thin places,” from an abandoned, weed-strangled cemetery to a beloved, deceased aunt’s sewing room, were where people felt most strongly attuned to Divine presence. Thin places were sometimes described as a kind of border zone, where the corporeal and the ethereal worlds were most closely connected, and where mindful inhabitants of both worlds could sometimes, momentarily, touch the other.

JD slowed his pace and concentrated on inhaling rhythmically on his way to his thin place. The fresh scent of growth mingled with the tang of decomposition, the sprouting leaves of maple, alder and poplar highlighting the perpetual composting carpet of conifer cones, twigs, fir and pine needles. He vowed to savor the last few days of spring even as the perfume of damp decay had him thinking two seasons ahead.

There was something about autumn, about the sights, smells and sounds of his fellow humans preparing for winter, which JD found reassuring. On his drives to work, through and past Hazelton’s remaining farmland and hillside acreages, he would see the literal and figurative signs of the season. Hand-lettered signs, in red paint on whitewashed particle board, would be posted by the road: Timothy Hay 4 Sale. Firewood: cord, half cord, will deliver. Farmers began preparing their soil for the next season, their cultivations producing a dank, rich, almost buttery smell that seemed to hover over the fields and drift out onto the road. Sweet corn fields were mowed and replanted to timothy grass, whose roots held the soil in place through the winter rains and whose tops provided hay. Next season’s vegetable fields would be chisel-plowed, and planted with cover crops of field peas, oats, and red clover.

JD’s arrival at the fire pit was broadcasted by a strident Stellar’s Jay perched in one of the Douglas Firs that circled the pit. The jay stopped its harsh shaar-shaar-shaar call and hopped down to a lower branch, cocking its head to the side to get a better look at the curious activities of the biped beneath it. JD crouched near the edge of the pit and inspected the purple-black, berry-infused scat piled by a split log bench. A raccoon or raccoons had been using that side of the fire pit, right up to and under the bench, as a toilet. That particular bench was the only one of the benches circling the fire pit that had been fashioned with a back and armrests, although large chunks of each armrest were missing. A smaller log, a thick oak tree branch that had been turned, sanded and lacquered, lay on the ground by the bench. JD picked up the log, which was round and smooth at one end and cracked and splintered at the other. It had been part of an armrest; he could see where it had rotted or been forcibly cracked off the side of the bench. He used the frayed end of the log to push the scat to the side of the pit. Several of the scat-berries had sprouted and were taking root. He chuckled to think of what he would tell Ciela about his morning walk – he’d seen for himself the efficacy of a raccoon’s garden tea.

Ciela should be a farmer.

Akin to grasping the concept of thin places, the idea came to JD not so much as revelation but as acknowledgement. Although Ciela showed little interest in the crocuses, irises, azaleas, and any flora she deemed ornamental that JD planted in their yard, her success with growing vegetables and herbs amazed him. She practiced her own form of crop rotation, giving even the smallest patch of dirt a “sabbatical” every two years, but refused to read gardening books. “People all over the world have grown crops since before Zeus wore short pants” was her dismissive response when she declined to even glance at the soil pH testing kit he’d found on sale at the Home Depot. Give her a packet of heirloom seeds and patch of dirt, and she and her homemade “garden tea” fertilizer would produce.

It could be a rational thing to do, JD thought. He would be closer to his work, and Ciela could, perhaps, find her life’s work. JD pushed his hood back and idly poked the raccoon scat with the log. All those years, with Ciela’s salary going straight to the bank – they had a tidy chunk of change in their savings account. Ciela, in a way JD found almost superstitious, refused to acknowledge it. She balanced the checkbook, paid the mortgage, utilities and other bills, but filed their Market Indexed Savings account statements without looking at them.

JD’s pulse quickened. He whacked at the scat with the log, crushing berry seeds and grinding them into the sodden, ash-streaked dirt. They could set their minds to it. Why not? This was not just another of his Rivercrest fantasies. They could decide to do it, and do it.

Digging and planting, tilling and harvesting, and preparing. Recovery and renewal; earthy and pungent. Ciela would smell great as a farmer. And who knows how much fun children could have, playing in the dirt, watching things grow.

The jay resumed its distress signal with an abruptness that made the muscles on the back of JD’s neck twitch. He heard footsteps and leaves crunching; he jumped up and spun around.

A man stopped ten feet in front of JD. He raised his hands, like in a western movie, JD thought, as if to show that he was unarmed.

“Don’t worry, it’s cool,” the man said. “No one saw me follow you here.”

JD detected the distinctive, curdled aroma of the chronically unwashed. It was an odor that even a week of showers couldn’t erase; it was a smell that lingered in the lungs and seeped from the pores. The description from Cheryl’s husband rang in JD’s ears.

Slight, scrawny build, curly dark hair, thin, sharp nose, wide-set eyes, boxy chin….

“What?” JD could barely hear himself speak. A fiery sludge oozed through his veins and gurgled in his heart. His mouth filled with saliva and he swallowed hard, embarrassed by his adrenaline surge. He surmised he was a good six inches taller and fifty pounds heavier than the man in front of him. He summoned his calm but stern, I am in charge and I am not kidding voice, a voice that could check the most vehemently protesting eighth grader.

“Why would you follow me, Calvin? It is Calvin, isn’t it?”

“I wanted to talk to her.” Calvin Knott showed no surprise that JD knew his name. “I wanted to talk to her, and now I can’t. She and that husband of hers, they wouldn’t take my calls or nothin’. That’s not right.”

He shifted his weight, shuffling from foot to foot in a manner that made JD think of a documentary he’d seen on neglected children in squalid Romanian orphanages who rocked themselves back and forth in their cribs.

“I have some questions, that’s all. She gave me up; I just want to know why. No one even told me about the funeral. I found out but it was too late. That’s not right. Her husband kept it from me, kept her and everything. You can’t own people. You can tell, that’s not right. You can see that, I know you can.”

All JD could see were constricted pupils in watery, dark, vacant eyes. The air felt heavy, sticky, and the jay had gone silent.

“That’s not a thing to do to a person, to your own blood. Someone has to care, if nobody else cares.” Calvin Knott’s voice was low and flat. “I just looked in, I didn’t try to talk to no one. I’ll be private; I’m cool with that. But I’ll find someone. I can tell about people. I look at ’em and I know, like that.” Calvin Knott snapped his fingers three times. “I have questions.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t answer them.” JD stepped sideways, toward the trail.

“You don’t even know what they are.” Calvin Knott stepped in the same direction as JD, blocking his path. “How can you know what I don’t ask? You got special powers or somethin’?”

Calvin took three steps toward JD and glanced up at the jay, which had resumed its squawking. There was no menace in his eyes, toward either the strident bird or JD, who found the detachment in Calvin Knott’s voice more disquieting than his words.

“It doesn’t matter what the questions are.” JD looked down into Calvin Knott’s eyes and tried not to look away. “I’m sorry, for your loss. But you have to…”

“She’ll tell me. She’ll tell me a lot, I bet, if they let me get near her. All I have to do is ask. I can tell, when I look at her. She’ll feel something for me. I could ask her anything.”

“Calvin.” JD’s abdominal muscles clenched with a sharp pang of compassion. “Cheryl can’t tell you anything. She died.”

“Not her!” Calvin snorted. “Her friend. I know where she lives. You know where she lives. With you. The pretty one in the purple skirt, looking up at everything at the funeral.”

A needle-sharp stinging shot through JD’s fingers, as if they were thawing from frostbite.

“I looked through the windows. I knew they wouldn’t let me in so I didn’t try. But I could make her talk with me. You can’t stop her; you don’t own your wife. It hurts; you need to know that. Do you know what it is, to cause hurt? I won’t have another one stop me. Not you, like my mother’s b-b – my mother’s bastard husband….”

“Don’t call her that.” The ringing in JD’s ears drowned out the scolding jay. “Cheryl was never your mother.”

Calvin Knott’s pupils widened and he looked straight at JD, straight through him. “All your wife has to do is see me, and she’d know. She hurts, too. I can make her talk to me. I will make her talk to me.”


The force of the blow hammered through JD’s arms, from his wrists to his shoulders. It was only when Calvin Knott crumpled to the ground that JD realized he still held the log in his hand. JD knelt beside the body. The eyes were open, the pupils fixed. There was no blood visible, but from the grotesque angle of the man’s neck JD knew it would be fruitless to check for a pulse.

JD’s ears pounded with each jackhammer thump of his heart.

If I’m ever going to have a heart attack, it will be now.

He forced himself to breathe in through his nose and exhale forcefully through his mouth, and waited for the crushing chest pains that never came.

I will never have a heart attack.

JD staggered to his feet and turned slowly in a circle, looking up and down the trail. Still holding the log, he jogged over to the old abandoned outhouse, forty feet off the trail. The splintered door had been tied shut with a piece of rusty wire no thicker than a paper clip. JD’s mouth twitched when he made out the faded words on a sign – a piece of bark someone had written on with a sharpie pen – that was jammed in the door handle: Pit Toilet Out of Order.

The wire disintegrated at his touch, and he opened the door. He batted at the profuse cobwebs, the dusty gray strands clinging to his mittens. Although the outhouse appeared to have been long out of use, the fetid smells of human waste still lingered. It was small, a one-seater, with a type of commode JD had never seen – taller and wider than usual, and made of oak that had been lacquered at some point. Most of the lacquer had peeled off and the commode seat hinges were broken and rusted. JD gingerly lifted the lid. Using a minimum amount of effort he snapped the remaining attached hinge, removed the seat and lid from the commode and set them to one side. He dropped the log into the pit.

Lift with your legs, not your back.

JD recited the fireman’s carry mantra, which he remembered from his First Responder teacher’s training. It proved unnecessary; Calvin Knott’s body felt surprisingly light across his shoulders. He made his way back across the trail, thinking about a childhood camping trip. Four twelve year old boys sat around a campfire, debating the ultimate dilemma: You are being pursued by an enormous, ravenous, frothing-mad grizzly bear which chased you out of your tent. You have camped in a large meadow; there are no cabins to hide in, no trees to climb. The only structure nearby is the outhouse. You run to the outhouse and shut and latch the door, with the bear in hot pursuit. The plywood outhouse door is no barrier to the angry grizz, which tears the door off its hinges. Now, do you face the bear, or escape by jumping into the putrid poop-pit?

The vote was unanimous: face the bear.

It was a snug fit but JD managed to push the body through, after pulling on one cracked end of the commode to make room for the shoulders. There was a mushy thud when the body landed in the pit. JD made a dozen trips to a thicket behind the outhouse, gathering piles of damp leaves and twigs, which he dropped down the pit. He replaced the commode seat and lid, and wedged the outhouse door shut, jamming a piece of bark under the bottom of the door.

Slapping his gloved hands against the front, back and sides of his sweats, JD brushed off clinging bits of leaves and cobwebs while he made one last check of the surrounding area, the trail and fire pit. He looked for signs of…

What am I looking for?

There were no drag marks, no signs of a struggle to hide. There had been no struggle. JD headed back down the trail, toward the campground.

We boys were wrong. I’m sorry for the choice, Calvin, but you should never face the bear.

* * *

Evidence. To find evidence, you need to look for it. Who would be looking, and for what? The ubiquitous flotsam of nature descends, obscuring the raccoon shit. It covers everything.

Covering my tracks. I can’t be thinking like this. I don’t know how to think like this.

JD trotted back down the trail, slowing to a walk when he reached the campground. He cut through one of the empty camp sites. A white SUV was backing out of the adjoining site. Although it was streaked with mud and dirt he could make out three bumper stickers taped to the inside of the vehicle’s rear windshield. Kids need both parents, in large black letters sandwiched between two red hearts, was the largest sticker, on the far left side. To the sticker’s right were two more stickers, Because I’m EVIL, that’s why! and Don’t Fuck with a Scorpio.

Heading for the footbridge, JD knew that it would no longer matter which route he would take through the state park. Avoiding the campground versus purposely seeking it out – it was a six of one choice. Rivercrest Park had become dense, broad, fat; it was heavy with consequence, viscous with responsibility. There would be no thin places there, anymore. Not for him.

* * *

“I’m going to jump in the shower.” Leaning through the doorway, JD peered into the kitchen where Ciela was sipping her tea and reading the newspaper. He rinsed off the bottom of his shoes in the utility room sink, stripped down to his underwear and tossed his socks, sweat pants, shoes and mittens into the washing machine. He found it surprisingly easy to modulate his voice as he peeled off his top layers over his head.

“It’s damp and mucky out there.” JD held his sweatshirt and undershirt to his nose and grimaced. “Whew, these things reek.” He added his top layers to the machine, grabbed a frayed beach towel that hung on a rack above the dryer, removed his briefs and wrapped the towel around his waist. “Got anything for the wash?”

“Some jeans in the hamper, if you’re looking to make a full load. Cold water only, please.” Ciela waved the Living section of the newspaper and grinned. “Good morning, towel guy.”

“Good morning, newspaper lady.”

“Yes it was, come to think of it.”

Ciela laughed saucily, and JD felt the capillaries in his cheeks expand.

“I can still make you blush; this is good,” she said. “After you get yourself un-reekified, there’s an article you should read. It’s a follow-up on the family of that Portland cop who was killed last year. Remember him?”

“Maybe. Details?”

“He was shot to death by a burglar who’d taken a twelve year old boy hostage.”

“I remember the picture.” JD adjusted his towel. “It was on the front page, a picture of the cop and his pregnant wife. He looked so young.”

“He was so young. He reminded me of one of your students. I watched his funeral on TV.”

“They televise police officers’ funerals?” JD leaned back against the sink.

“They did for that one. I’d turned on the news while I was exercising. All the local networks were carrying the funeral. It was quite the spectacle. Motorcycle cops from all over the Portland and Vancouver metro areas were there, even contingents from Seattle and Spokane.”

Ciela put the paper down. “It was overwhelming, the testimonials. His teachers, Four-H mentors, fellow officers – the tributes went on and on. His wife was also a cop. They volunteered in the same communities they patrolled. That’s how they met, working in an adult literacy program at nights, after doing full dayshifts.”

“So sad,” JD murmured.

“I was listening to the accolades and thought, who’s going to replace someone like that?” Ciela took a long sip of her tea. “I spent the rest of the day, chewing it over in my mind. It was a…ruminant notion. Is that the right word?”

“If you’re looking for cud imagery, sure.”

“Then that’s it.” Ciela laid her hand upon the newspaper. “After reading this article, the same idea has come back to me. As if I needed to chew on it some more.”

“What idea?”

“That our lofty, no-man-is-an-island rhetoric is just that. Rhetorical BS. The dirty truth is this: that some lives are worth more than others, because of the impact they have on others.”

“I don’t know.” JD’s hand tightly gripped his towel, his knuckles blanching. “I’d have to think about that.”

“Be my guest. The point, I suppose, is to live as if…well, to live in a way that would have people miss you when you’re gone. Okay, I’m rambling, but do you know what I mean? I’m not talking about bucking for a celebrity ceremony, or a police entourage at my funeral. Although,” Ciela cooed, “all those biker cops in their tight riding pants were rather impressive.”

“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that.” JD cleared his throat. “Anyway, you’ve hit a sticky one.”

“Didn’t think I had it in me? Nice to know there are still some surprises left between us. Another thing, before I forget. First, pass me the mugs. How did these get left out?” Ciela began loading the previous night’s dishes into the dishwasher.

“Let me do that,” JD said. “You stack them wrong.”

“I can’t see the finer points of dishwasher loading.” Ciela ran her fingers over the top rack of the dishwasher, as if it were a Braille manuscript she was trying to decipher. “Okay, when I told you that I’d spoken with Dad after Cheryl’s funeral, I forgot to mention Aunt Betsy-Bug’s visit.”

“Is it that time of the year again?”

“Memorial Day weekend comes every year. I can’t believe neither of us remembered we’d have a scheduling conflict. B-B made the arrangements months ago, before Cheryl’s….” Ciela cleared her throat. “Dad said B-B understands we can’t come down to Sacramento for a visit, with all that’s been going on, so he offered to fly her up here.”

“He offered?” JD shut the dishwasher. “You mean, it’s a done deal.”

“It’s a quickie, just an overnight visit. Her flight arrives in Portland late Saturday morning.”

“A quickie with B-B?” JD ran his fingers through his hair, catching a bit of cobweb on his thumb. “That sounds fine.”

“I see that face,” Ciela smirked. “You’ve always said you get a kick out of B-B.”

“It’s not that.” JD twirled the cobweb strand between his thumb and forefinger, compressing it into a miniscule ball. “I wish the timing were different.”

“Ditto. Still, as we have decided to agree, some people matter…”

“More than others?” JD finished. “And your Aunt Betsy-Bug is one of those?”

“Long term, I’ll reserve judgment. Next week, sure.”

JD kissed the top of Ciela’s head. “Don’t start the dishwasher until after I shower – never mind, I’ll start it after the laundry.”

“And after you add your breakfast dishes,” Ciela said.

JD’s thighs ached and his stomach began to twist. Breakfast. Food. He would eat breakfast after his shower. He would have to eat, and feel hunger. He would return to Rivercrest – the sooner the better. Normal would have to return. The instinct was to flee, as both his intellect and gut were telling him. He would not fight instinct, he would surmount it.

Ciela turned toward the sink, and removed a fresh tea bag from canister on the counter. “Have a relaxing shower, towel-guy.”

JD hitched up his towel and headed for the stairs.


Read Robyn’s interview about “The Assassin,” from Looking Up, her novel in progress.