Daniel Xavier DeSault didn’t care what people thought. And it didn’t take much provocation for him to show the upright citizens of Cornish Flat, New Hampshire, that their opinion meant nothing to him. For instance, when the checkout lady at the Cornish Deli put his change on the counter rather than in his hand, which he was holding out as polite as could be. Or when old man Marley down at Sonny’s Sunoco made him wait at the pumps, gabbing away on the phone inside his warm office. Xavier, which he insisted on being called now–X to his closest friends–had learned how to make sure such slights didn’t happen again. He popped open his bag of Doritos with his fist, spraying the pieces all over the deli lady. At Sonny’s, he filled up his own tank and then doused Marley’s boots with gas when the shuffling little man came out to be paid.
But that was some years ago, when Xavier was a kid. Now that he was 23 and had gone to trial, there wasn’t a soul among the 1,202 living in town who wasn’t ready to treat him right.
Actually, Xavier didn’t believe the sign at the town line saying “Inhabitants–1,202.” After all, that rusted piece of metal was older than he was. And everyone knew there were a lot more people dying or moving away than being born or moving in. Fact is, he couldn’t remember the last time anybody moved in. Cornish Flat was like a one-way mirror, always looking out.
The only inhabited part of town were the strips of land on either side of Rte. 120, a road as narrow as a snake but not half as windy. For some reason nobody could remember, people from The Flats called their seven-mile stretch of the road Rte. 1-2-0. Anybody who did otherwise didn’t know anything.
The houses built into the hills along 1-2-0 clung like slugs to dirt. Outsiders wanting to see the real Granite State could just drive up the western border, keeping the Connecticut River off their left shoulder. Everywhere the black rock bulged out of the hillsides like inflamed knuckles. People bought here because there was no land cheaper and then shaped their houses around the granite as best they could. A few folks had no choice but to leave a big slab sticking right into the living room, as if it had crashed through the wall. The rock gave off a cold, dark feeling, like living in a cave. Xavier always wished his place was like that.
The hills themselves didn’t have a name. They weren’t part of the White Mountains farther northeast or the Green Mountains across the river in Vermont. If people needed to refer to them at all they were just “those hills in Cornish Flat.” The map said “Elevation, 2,205 feet,” but the hills didn’t seem that high since Cornish itself was dead even at 1,000 feet.
In the early morning and late afternoon, the sun lined up lengthwise along Rte. 1-2-0, the only times natural light cast itself on the town. Xavier generally wasn’t up to greet the morning sun, but he made the most of the afternoons by sitting out on the front steps of The Hub, as the DeSault bungalow was commonly known. Hub caps going back 20 years hung like tiny full moons on the broad side of the house. The DeSaults didn’t have a license to sell them, so there was no “4 Sale Sign” or other evidence of commerce. But folks knew enough to drive up, pick out what they wanted, then put a donation of $5 through the mail chute.
It did Xavier’s mood good to take in a little radiation everyday. A half hour of natural sun each afternoon kept his skin looking like a dried fig, kind of exotic, he thought, for New Hampshire. With his black curly hair and his size, which was on the shy side of 5’6″, he could have almost passed for Mediterranean.
They said he killed a girl by the name of Josephine Aurelio. The picture her mother handed over to the state investigators showed a slim 22 year old wearing a red halter top and black shorts, standing next to a snowman in the dead of winter. The detective apologized for having to ask some delicate questions, but they needed to know if Josephine was involved with anyone in a sexual way? And was she known to take drugs, such as snorting heroin, which they were seeing a lot of upstate nowadays? Mrs. Aurelio pointed to the picture of her daughter as her answer. Did she look like that kind of girl?
If the sentiments expressed at the Deli around lunchtime were any measure, the residents of Cornish Flat were divided on exactly what kind of girl Josephine was. There was no such disagreement when it came to the accused. As the editorial in the weekly Cornish Sun put it a few days after the verdict came in, “The old saying `He got away with murder’ must surely have been thought up to refer to Daniel Xavier DeSault.”
Sean DeSault, Xavier’s younger brother by four years, read the editorial outloud as they were frying up some egg sandwiches, a kind of welcome home celebration after the trial. He said that X could sue the paper for defamation of character. Of course, he added, it would take some fancy maneuvering to convince a jury that Xavier had any character worth defaming. It took a few seconds for the insult to register with Xavier, who freely admitted to not being the quickest on the uptake. As he thought about this idea of suing, he swung his foot up on the easy chair, which was something he couldn’t do when his mother was around. That wasn’t very often anymore since she’d taken up with Jack Daniels. On the wall behind the chair hung his father’s cockeyed pictures of John F. Kennedy and the Pope, side by side, like some old married couple. The particular Pope changed now and then, and one year they seemed to drop like flies and nobody could remember if it was a John or a Paul. But the picture of Jack “Fitz” Kennedy, as his father always referred to him, never changed. Even after it came out about his affair with none other than Marilyn Monroe, the senior DeSault was forgiving. He said, you can’t fault the man for his taste, can you?
As Xavier remembered it, his father could find fault with everybody, except Kennedy, the Pope, and of course, Sean. Still, Xavier was genuinely fond of his baby brother. The boy was useful, particularly since he had just returned from his freshman year at Assumption College in Massachusetts, the first of the DeSaults to make it that far, educationally speaking. Sean knew things.
“How would you go about doing that–suing someone, I mean?” Xavier was standing over the sink now eating out of the frying pan, as he often did at dinner. It suited him–no dishes to wash and no crumbs on the floor.
“You’d have to get a lawyer,” Sean said, “like that one that advertises on Jerry Springer–his name is Sy Morris, or something like that. He’s always talking about getting people what’s due them.” Sean scraped his own egg sandwich onto a plate and sat down at the table, which was just three planks of six-foot pine lying on cinder blocks, with a nylon tablecloth thrown over them. All the furniture in the DeSault house was special built like this from scrap at Bailey’s Lumber. Store-bought furniture just didn’t fit into the long, narrow rooms of the DeSault place. From the outside, the house looked like four train cars curling around a hillside.
“You really think I could win?” Xavier asked.
“Open and shut case,” Sean said between mouthfuls. He ran down the facts: X had been cleared by twelve of the county’s finest citizens. How many other people in town could have their actions on a single day, such as that third Saturday in May, scrutinized for two weeks and been judged not guilty of something? He hadn’t gotten a speeding ticket, hadn’t parked in any handicapped-only zones, hadn’t been caught smoking weed, hadn’t made any rude suggestions to girls he passed. It was a clean day from two minutes past noon, when he woke up in his room at the far end of The Hub, to quarter past two that night, when he feel asleep drunk in Nicki’s apartment. He hadn’t even DUI–driven under the influence–which was pretty much a first for him on a Saturday night. He remembered that part distinctly: When he came out of the B&B Bar, he had pulled the Mustang out of the way around back and walked the mile to Nicki’s. It wasn’t surprising that no one saw him, seeing as how dark it was that particular night. Weren’t that many cars on 1-2-0 at 2 a.m. anyway. Xavier explained it all. He only wished Court TV was there so the whole country could have seen him.
Attorney James Daly: That was unusual, wasn’t it, Mr. DeSault, for you to leave your prize 1967 Mustang out of your site?
Xavier: You got that right. Never happened before.
Daly: But you still insist that’s what you did–left your Mustang in the back lot of B&B’s bar where anybody with a little too much to drink might bump into it, scratch the paint and walk away?
Xavier: The world’s a dangerous place, Mr. Daly, for cars and people. No way I wanted to leave my Mustang in an area with the likes of myself stumbling around. But when something you don’t want to do runs smack up against the letter of the law, the law wins. Ain’t that the way it’s supposed to be?
Xavier knew the preference of educated people for “isn’t” rather than “ain’t,” which is exactly why he used “ain’t” in situations like this. He was fond of pretending he didn’t know any better. It always surprised him how useful ignorance could be in some situations, if you managed to stay clear of stupidity.
Most people thought he was stupid because he couldn’t read. In ninth grade, his special ed teacher had come up with the word for his trouble, but she said it fast and he couldn’t picture the letters in his head. She wrote the word for him on the blackboard, but Xavier couldn’t understand how that was supposed to help since the problem was he couldn’t read. When he got home that night, his father slapped him for being so stupid and said, “You don’t even know the name of what they say’s wrong with you?”
Attorney Daly: Mr. DeSault, would you please read for the court this sentence from the New Hampshire State Crime Lab report?
Xavier: No, sir.
Daly: You won’t read it?
Xavier: I can’t, seeing as how I have this problem reading.
Daly: Alright then, if the court will permit me, I’ll read: “Blood matching the type of Josephine Aurelio was found on the passenger seat of the suspect’s Mustang and on the right thigh of his jeans.” Now, can you tell us how the blood got there?
Xavier: I guess she must of been bleeding.
Daly: You guess? How would she come to be bleeding on you and your car on May 19th, the night she was last seen?
Xavier: I can’t say for sure. But you know, Josey had this strange trick she used to do.
Daly: What trick was that?
Xavier: You sure you want me to tell it?
Daly: I’m sure.
Xavier: Well, she’d stick her fist in her mouth, all the way up to her wrist. So maybe she scraped her knuckles or something on her teeth pulling her hand out, I don’t know. It was kind of disgusting, if you want to know the truth. I couldn’t watch.
Daly: You’re telling this jury that blood from Josephine Aurelio got on your clothes and your car because she cut herself stuffing her fist in her mouth?
Xavier: If you think it’s strange talking about it, you should see her do it.
It almost made Xavier gag just picturing that pretty little hand disappearing inside Josey’s rosy red lips. He knew she was just showing off, but it didn’t excite him one bit. It made him wonder, how does a girl think to try such a thing in the first place?
Admitting the unusual absence of a body, the prosecutor of Sullivan County based his indictment of Xavier DeSault on what he called “powerful circumstantial evidence,” including a fish filleting knife found at the bottom of the Dumpster behind the B&B. It was wiped clean, except for some barbecue sauce on the handle. The suspect was well-known, the prosecutor said, for his weekend fishing excursions and his fondness for barbecue, a B&B speciality.
Xavier didn’t really mind the inconvenience of his arrest, even though it came at 4 a.m. The cops rousted him out of bed just like he’d seen in the movies and handcuffed him without even letting him change into a shirt that wasn’t stained with Red Dog. They hurried him down the front steps into the cruiser with its blue light whirling like some vehicle from outer space. Xavier was no stranger to the backseat of a police car, but it was different this time with his hands clamped behind him and neighbors standing in their bathrobes pointing. Not many people got to experience that much attention.
Bail was set at $100,000. The judge might just as well have said $1,000, because the DeSaults couldn’t raise that much either. Xavier spent three months up in Lebanon, which was the only town nearby that actually had a jail cell. On weekends the place filled up with daytrippers, as Xavier thought of them, mostly drunk or hopped up on coke. By Monday the place was his again, and he could get a quiet night’s sleep, which he was fond of. About noon each weekday C.B. Jones, the guard, came on duty with his checkers. He pushed up an overturned trashcan flush to the cell and set the game on that. Xavier could reach through the bars to make most of his moves, but he had to ask for help to king himself.
He was a whiz at checkers, always had been. He had to concentrate in order to keep the game close so that his opponent would want to play again. Xavier liked C.B., which surprised him because he’d never talked to a black before. C.B. said that people often looked at him on the street as if he were a criminal, not a guard. Personally, Xavier didn’t see the problem with that. ¨MDNMøIn fact, when he thought about it after his release, it was useful to have people think of him as a cold-hearted killer. When he walked into Granite Hardware on the first Saturday morning of his freedom, the people parted to let him go to the head of the line just like he was the president of something. That night, the boys at Bob’s Billiards outside Lebanon were eager to pony up the money to play a game with him. Being considered a murderer didn’t seem to have any down side to it. Even the girls still wanted to go out with him, which made sense, if you thought about it. After all, he hadn’t been accused of killing his girlfriend, or even his date. In fact, the prosecutor said he’d killed Josephine Aurelio exactly because she refused to go out with him on May 19th to the theater up in Hanover.
Xavier: Josey, I said, how about a movie?
Attorney Daly: And how did she answer you?
Xavier: She said, we could go to my place and make our own X-rated movie in my bed.
Daly: And it’s your testimony that you turned down this invitation–instead you went to the movies by yourself and then came back later to B&B’s Bar?
Xavier: I’m not just saying it, that’s what I did. You see, some girls are the kind you want to go to bed with anytime no matter what mood you’re in, and others you just want to take to the movies even if you’re horny as hell. Josey was the movies kind of girl.
Daly: Was the movies kind of girl?
Xavier: Still is, I guess.
The Aurelios, all 13 of them, if you counted the cousins who drove up from Greenfield in the northwest corner of Massachusetts, took up the whole back row of the courtroom every day. Hearing their Josephine, the former Cornish queen, described by a lowlife like DeSault as a girl you wouldn’t want to take to bed was more than they could take. A couple of the Aurelio women spat at him. The boys cursed him in Italian.
It amazed Xavier that people would get themselves so worked up. Didn’t they know that stress could kill them? And why would he care if they hated him? He’d been hated from the moment he slipped into life. His mother used to say that giving birth to him was like popping a bowling ball out of her you know what. Fattest head you ever saw. And scratchy, too, with this thick black hair like you’ve never seen on a baby. She couldn’t walk for a week, and she never got her figure back. Stayed bloated up like a cow. And for what–a child that wailed all day and threw up all night? What did it matter being hated by strangers, Xavier thought, when you’ve been hated by your own mother?
At the reading of the verdict, Judge Slocum let Josephine’s relatives back into the courtroom with the warning that he’d tolerate no more commotion. When the jury foreman said “Not Guilty” loud and clear, there was some crying and moaning, but the family managed to keep itself under control. After shaking hands with his lawyer, Xavier looked over his shoulder into the spectators and saw Manny Aurelio staring at him. He was easy to pick out–he looked exactly like one of those Mario brothers in Nintendo, just as Josey had described him. He was dressed in black head to toe, like a miniature undertaker. His index finger was sticking out and his thumb was sticking up–the shape of a gun. Xavier got the message and figured he better watch his back. Who knew what kind of metal one of those Aurelios might be packing? And there were so many of them. They were known to be violent people. Josey herself was on the unpredictable side.
Cornish Sun: You’re saying you have no idea what happened to Josephine after you left her on the night of May 19th?
Xavier: I got an idea, if you want to hear it.
Cornish Sun: What’s your idea?
Xavier: She staged this whole thing to get back at me `cause I wouldn’t do it with her. Maybe she even planted her blood when I left the car at the B&B. The back door lock never worked, and she knew that. She’s probably off somewhere reading about this in the papers and having a good laugh.
After he was set free from Lebanon and dropped back in the center of Cornish Flat, Xavier took his lawyer’s advice to look for a job and stay out of trouble. First off he considered joining the Marines. Mostly he liked their attitude, which he saw written on a T-shirt worn by a guy who had spent a night in the cell next to him. The black letters said: “When It Absolutely, Positively Has to Be Destroyed…The Marines.” Xavier figured he could get into the spirit of that shirt. He felt like a destroyer. It didn’t matter to him what in particular needed destroying, just bring it on. The righteous thing about The Marines was that you couldn’t be arrested for doing your job. Destruction was your duty.
Like most things that required some effort, though, Xavier never drove the hour down to the state capital in Concord to the recruiting station. Besides, he figured that Sean was probably right that the military didn’t want high school dropouts. Nobody seemed to.
After a few weeks hanging out at home and the B&B, which served him free beer now that he’d made the place famous, Xavier took his father’s suggestion to look for work at Holly’s Sand and Gravel. He wasn’t entirely happy to find out that Holly had lost a worker just that morning and could use Xavier right away. That presented a little problem, because he felt he needed a little more time to adjust to regular life after being locked up in jail for three months. But Holly said start now or don’t start at all. Xavier admired someone who could get to the point like that and said he’d start.
His first Saturday night flush with a paycheck Xavier drove Nicki up to dinner in Hanover. She liked walking around Dartmouth at night hearing strange bits of conversation as students walked by. She said it was like visiting a foreign country where you didn’t know the language. After dinner and a few beers at one of the student hangouts, they walked to the town green, which was filled with couples lying on the ground, touching each other in the shadows. Suddenly Nicki pulled Xavier onto the thick cushiony grass and gave him a big wet kiss. He liked the way she got carried away sometimes. Then she whispered into his ear, “People in The Flats are scared of you. They wonder what you’ll do next.”
“You mean if I’m planning to kill someone…else?”
“Nooooo,” she said, elongating the word into nonsense. Then she ran her fingers up his arm, under his sleeve, and said, “What did it feel like?” Her other hand fell into his lap.
It was the first time anyone had outright asked him to describe the sensation of killing a person. The question seemed odd to him, but then again, it made him feel kind of like an expert. “Well, of course, I wouldn’t know for sure, but I guess it’s like coming,” he said, figuring that’s what she wanted to hear. “This urge builds up inside you and you can’t do anything else in your life until you relieve it. You can’t think or anything. And you’d go crazy if you couldn’t…”
Nicki squeezed his hard jeans, and Xavier forgot the rest of his sentence.
When Josephine Aurelio returned to Cornish Flat eight months later as Mrs. Walter Devereaux, she stopped first at the family house, which was actually a trailer with an addition at one end that turned it into a giant L. She took her husband by the arm and proudly showed him the utter backwardness of her former home, not to mention the town it was situated in. As she expected, he marveled that she had managed to transcend the deficiencies of her upbringing to become the wife of a businessman, and a Canadian one at that. She had indeed come a long way, and he admired that in a person.
Manny Aurelio couldn’t believe his eyes when she came through the door that afternoon. He grabbed her and swung her around like he’d just won the lottery. He said it was like seeing someone rise from the dead.
“Dead?” Josephine laughed. “I’ve never been so alive in my life.”
That pleased her father, of course. He said he was happy for her. But there was the fuss down here of people thinking she’d been killed, and the police figuring that Xavier DeSault had done it. Josephine said she’d never even heard of the trial, being otherwise occupied driving around Canada with Walter. She explained that he was a traveling salesman who happened to be passing through town the night she found herself walking Rte. 1-2-0 after being snubbed by Mr. DeSault, as she now referred to him. She said news of Cornish Flat probably stopped at the American border, which is why she never heard anything about any trial. She said that whatever inconvenience Mr. DeSault had suffered, it was no less than he deserved.
At the family party that night, Josephine let slip that her Walter had enough money invested in mines up in Canada that he could buy up all of Cornish Flat, if he wanted to. Her Aunt Mona apparently missed the point because she asked, “Why would he want to?”
When Xavier heard that Josey was visiting over at her father’s place, he smiled the way a man does who knows his run of luck is over and couldn’t have imagined it would last this long anyway. Deep down he’d always known that she’d come back someday and ruin his perfect reputation.
Still, a few folks in Cornish Flat thought he was guilty even after seeing Josephine riding down Rte. 1-2-0 in Walter’s Town Car laughing and waving at people she knew and didn’t know. They kept on saying Xavier had gotten away with murder, and he did nothing to convince them otherwise.
–from New Press Literary Quarterly, Fall 1998
Copyright 1998 by George Harrar. All rights reserved.