James McDonough was hard to like at first sight. He had a stern brow that darkened his mahogany eyes, and a mouth frozen in a grimace. Patchy graying hair sprung from his head, and a shadow of a beard lingered on his face. In stained clothing he strode with forceful steps, and the deep tones of his voice could cut through any clamor. Mostly he kept to himself though, and while the people snickered when they saw him, no one really paid him much mind.
McDonough did not rush. He was a diligent man both broken and driven by perfectionism, and spent hours studying his craft in the local library, copying notes and diagrams into a marbled notebook. Some would later say that his fascination was bred from trauma—that the honor for which he had killed in ‘Nam had eroded his humanity. They didn’t know him intimately, though. He had little family left, and to them he hardly spoke. To them, the war had merely excavated something that inevitably would have puppeteered the old man. In truth he was a romantic, but struggled with nihilism as one might their faith.
He was my neighbor, and became an uncle of sorts to me. We first got to know him at a block party when I was eleven. Although he had moved in a few months prior, no one on the block had ever heard him speak. So we were surprised to find him sitting on his curb among the festivities, silently washing down a hotdog with a bottle of beer.
There are people who think it their moral duty to juice histories from wallflowers. Being one of them, my mother couldn’t resist going over to him. His tales of Saigon captivated my mother, and peculiarity fascinated my father. After that, he came around about once a week with a six-pack and a story. He’d ramble on for hours, but would pause and listen if one of us had something to say—we often let him talk.
McDonough’s first victim was a deer who had wandered into his backyard. Out of respect, he named it before shooting it down. As it was a nice day, he began his work outside. He made a clean slice up from an incision in its lower belly—careful to not puncture the guts and organs within. Loosening the skin with the knife, and peeling it back with his hand, he undressed the deer of its skin. Inside his house, he rubbed non-iodized salt into the hide layer by layer before hanging it in his attic until it was ready to be oiled and molded.
McDonough filled his home with animals, modeling them as if chasing one another, cuddling, playing, or hunting. He invited me in a couple of times. He had a sincere fondness for children, which was often misconstrued given his demeanor. However, in retrospect, I can only speak for his sincerity. Introducing the animals to me by name, he liberated them from their static existence with fantastic tales.
“How’d you do it?” I asked him.
“You want to see? I’ve got a fresh one in the freezer.”
Trembling, I nodded.
The body was perfect, stiff in its plastic. “The key,” he began as he opened the vacuum, “is tranquilizers. Protects the integrity of the body. Then you freeze them, give them a nice gentle hypothermic end.” He slid the deer out of the bag onto a metallic table. The body was a contagious kind of cold. I flinched my hand away. “It’s okay, he won’t bite.”
We continued our visits for a little over four years. Sometimes he would sleep on our couch if the beer took too much out of him. Then one day, he stopped. Each time I knocked on his door, he had every excuse not to see me, or even join us for dinner. Eventually, we gave up. It wasn’t until my father’s wake two years later that me spoke to me again. McDonough looked healthier than we had remembered. “Maybe he found a woman,” my mother whispered with vodka breath. She waved to him, but he didn’t see and turned to stand over the painted corpse of my father. I walked up to stand beside him, and together we stared. “He’s not right,” he said.
“They say he was in the water for an hour?”
I tried to recognize the pale bloated face of my father, and bring it to life as McDonough had his animals, but the more I stared, the more alien he looked.
“They never do look right. The old, they always look peaceful, because they die looking dead, but dead they always look too alive. The young though, my sister died young as well, lung cancer you know. She was a radiant woman, but they smothered her with makeup. She never needed any in life. I’m sorry they fucked your dad up too, kid. They could’ve done better, even with the circumstances.” I could have asked him then what he meant, but I was too focused on watching that familiar face slip into strangeness. Later, people would be suspicious of McDonough’s involvement in my father’s death, but recalling McDonough’s words, I know my father wasn’t his victim.
McDonough’s first human victim was an old man whom he named Tim Carlson. Mr. Carlson ate lunch at least three days a week at Kat’s Diner in town. The old man always sat alone, but would order two coffees, and place one across from him. With trembling arthritic hands, he would tear two sugar packets—spilling sugar onto the table as he poured one packet into the further cup and then the other into his own. To eat he would order a Rubin with roasted potatoes, and only ever finish half. Every time McDonough saw that old man sip from his quivering cup, or nibble at his half of the sandwich, he felt he too was dining with a ghost.
Mr. Carlson’s absence was hardly noticed, except by Kat, who merely assumed he had passed away naturally and been shipped off to the grave by his nursing home. The old man had lived alone, and there was no one else to suspect a thing.
McDonough’s second victim was a woman he named Eleanor Winkle. Mrs. Winkle would walk along the road with a shopping cart, up and down, all day. She had long gray locks and tree bark skin. In the basket she kept a trash bag filled with recyclable bottles and cans, as well as the occasional bottle of vodka—identifiable only by the cap peeking from a brown paper bag. Tied to the front of the basket was a dirt-caked teddy bear—its fur pilled, one eye missing, and stuffing seeping out of a wound in its leg. She had dressed it in an infant’s onesie. Every time McDonough saw her, he could feel her child’s soft hand against his cheek as its heat slipped away.
No-one noticed when Mrs. Winkle disappeared. I myself did not think of it until I found her among the others.
Three years after my father’s wake, McDonough visited us again. I was home from university for the holidays. My mother was sleeping when he came sloppily knocking. As soon as I opened the door, he walked straight to the kitchen table with a beer in one hand, and a six-pack in the other. I sat at the table, and he dropped the pack between us. “I’m old, kid, but you know what I’ll never get?” Slumping into a chair, he tipped his beer to his lips, missing a little. Beer spilled onto his shirt, but he didn’t seem to notice. “Why the fuck god created anything. If he’s so fucking holy, fuck, if he’s real, why’d he go and create something that so inevitably would go to shit? Listen kid, when I die, I don’t want none of that religious bullshit or whatever, you hear? I don’t want prayers over my corpse. I don’t want to be buried, and get up eaten by worms, all alone like that. We’re lonely enough in life, don’t want to be lonely in death.”
I nodded and opened a beer.
“But I’ll tell you what, there’s no difference between a lonely man and a corpse.”
He took a long swig of beer. “Man’s been killing himself since the dawn of time, don’t matter how—stabbing, shooting, shunning—, but it’s okay, because man was created and is loved by God.” He laughed, spitting a little, “The whole thing’s shit!” He threw his hands up, spilling beer onto his head as he gestured his words. He didn’t seem to notice. When his hands fell, his bottle hit the table causing more beer to spill out onto the tablecloth. “Sorry.”
“It’s fine.” I finished my beer watching him watch little bubbles pop on the puddle of beer. His face slackened as his eyes widened with a new worry. I opened another bottle, “So what have you been up to all this time? I’ve missed our lessons.”
With the eyes of a lost child, he looked up. “I should go. Won’t bother you any more. Good talking to you again, kid,” and he left.
The first victim to make the papers was Chelsea Leman, a thirty-two-year-old heroine addict from the town over. McDonough found her body in an alleyway—hair caked with vomit, and body limp. To McDonough, she was a hopeless warrior against a cancer that had gnawed at her lungs and slurped away her breath. He named her Mary walker. Some say he could have saved her, that the drugs in her system couldn’t have killed her—her tolerance as it was. There may be some truth to this, but there was love in his act. When sober, Ms. Leman bore an unnatural likeness to McDonough’s sister.
It took three weeks for someone to report her missing.
Six days after he visited me, my mother forwarded me an envelope she had found in her mailbox. Inside was a marbled notebook full of McDonough’s notes and musings, directions to a cottage in the mountains, and a key. On the last page of the notebook was written:
“I want you to meet my family.”
That weekend, with the envelope as passenger, I drove into the mountains to find his cottage set back along a thin dirt road that veered to only one other neighbor. A cacophony of wind chimes filled the scene of overgrown grass and a garden violated by weeds. No light shone through the checkerboard curtains in the windows. Floorboards creaked as stepped onto the deck.
A putrid odor welcomed me as I opened the door. There was no heat. My breath veiled my vision in the darkness, so I turned on a light.
Sitting on a red plaid sofa in the center of the room was McDonough, Mary Walker, Eleanor Winkle and Tim Carlson. Mr. Carlson’s arm was draped around Mrs. Winkle and Mrs. Walker was smiling radiantly beside them. McDonough’s limp body was slumped against her, his head resting on her shoulder. I walked over to him, and took from his clenched hand a Polaroid of the four of them posed on the couch in the likeness of a family portrait. Written on the back, “Don’t fuck me up kid.” I put the photo into my pocket, and stepped back. They were warm in each other’s company, but there was no breath to cloud the January air.
Ashley N. Melucci was born on Long Island, New York. While attaining her BA in Cultural Anthropology at CUNY Hunter College, she spent three years living in New York City, and one year studying in Leiden, the Netherlands. Currently, she teaches English in Prague, the Czech Republic.