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What Happened on September 28
posted September 29, 2005
 

I don't go out as much as I used to at night; at least not by myself. I was slow to pick up on the signs. A twenty-something male in a ridiculously large SUV backed out of a Dairy Queen parking lot onto the street in front of me. I honked at him pretty hard, then promptly forgot him. He must have pulled over or gone around the block because when I got out of my car at the Snappy Mart he was parked behind my car in the extended lot, engine running, positioned at about 7 AM. He gave me a look up and down and sped off. It took me an extra ten seconds to kind of pull all the information in. Finally, with a squint: "Oh, that guy." I waited in line, bought my newspaper and a Powerball and got back in my car. As I sat a block down the road I saw the same green SUV barrel back into the convenience store's parking lot. The first thing that crossed my mind is I wondered if he had returned with a gun.

It may be a stretch, but I've been thinking about that kind of thing all day. Twenty years ago, on September 28, 1985, my best friend was found in his car, murdered.

These are the details as I remember them. I make no claims for their accuracy other than that.

His car was parked in a small neighborhood park in my hometown of Muncie, Indiana. He was in the driver's seat, buckled in, an empty holster wedged between his legs that may have held the gun that killed him. President of the Junior Class, he had been shot in the chest and bled to death for the next 40 minutes to an hour; he may have regained conscious during that time. His girlfriend Kimberly was sitting next to him in the passenger's seat. A member of our school's homecoming court, she had been killed instantly from a gunshot to the left side of her face. A third bullet fired from the gun had broken out the passenger's side window. The window on the driver's side was rolled down as if a conversation had taken place before the shots were fired. The heater was on; the car was still running. They were dressed-down, on a theme date. She was on her period.

They were found by an off-duty police officer walking his dog, attracted by the broken glass on the right side of the car. The park was by no means empty; there were seven or eight other cars, couples parking, most eventually accounted for. West Side Park was a small public area about two-three miles away from my friend's house and about four or five from the place I grew up. It was connected by a long, winding road going east to west roughly along the contours of the White River. It consisted of a lightly wooded area with some picnic tables, a basketball court, and a baseball diamond. There was enough of an open space available that I had practiced there as a kid during my first year of peewee football. A public bathroom was the only building in the park; my football coach had shown me how to put my pads in on that first day of practice, and lent me an oversized shirt as a practice jersey.

Double homicides being rare in Middletown, USA, a significant police presence hit Westside Park minutes after the news was raidoed in. Evidence was collected. The crime scene was lit and videotaped, both with and without the bodies present. Several people stopped by the park's access road entrance, including the girl's stepfather, curious to know what had happened and who it had happened to. Their names were taken in case the murderer had returned to the scene of the crime, and then each was politely asked to go home. According to what I heard some years later, the families were notified in person when it was still early enough had the kids returned home at the same moment they might not have been grounded.

A few hours later during Sunday morning proper a picture ran on the front page of the local newspaper showing the car and announcing the death of an unknown couple. Up early to watch cartoons and gorge on sweets, I stared at the photo for what seemed like forever. The car was nondescript, but what very much looked like my friend's music box was in the window of the back seat, daring me to call his house. I asked his mother, "Please let me speak to..." and trailed off without ever speaking his name.

Somehow I knew.

*****

His name was Ethan Edward Dixon; he sometimes signed notes "EED." I called him Ethan or occasionally "E." I met Ethan at Storer Middle School in the 7th grade. I can't remember being introduced. We had the same English class (Mrs. Wasson). He was rail skinny, blonde-haired, and strong-featured. I was shaggy-headed, overweight and extremely insecure. We became more and more aware of each other as dueling smart-asses at opposite ends of the same lunchroom table, and by the time we became friends we had a foundation of comfort, a recognition of the other guy's existence, that is such a part of growing up in a small community you don't recognize it's there until you move away.

Ethan and I were smart kids who went home after school to empty houses. We joined sports teams, did most of our homework and talked about girls, but we also fended off boredom by pursuing every proto-geek activity known to man. We played Risk and Traveler, watched Star Trek re-runs and repeated SCTV sketches from memory. This was during that strange point in nerd culture halfway between dominant modes of scarcity (not being able to find anything) and sorting (being able to put your hands on whatever you want but not knowing exactly what it is you want). We studied everything from the smallest ad on the back of Epic Magazine or the barest mention in an interview as if we were digging up clues to magic Mason treasure on the back of dollar bills. We fought the war at home, too, figuring out what local theater showed Ralph Bakshi movies at midnight on the weekends, which basement over at the college housed the kids playing Fletcher Pratt's Naval War Game, what bowling alley's game room had sit-down Tailgunner instead of the stand-up kind. All of us in our little group took our entertainment very, very seriously. We skipped school to see Return of the Jedi; we traded Kurt Vonnegut paperbacks and made each other endless mix tapes. We felt no special allegiance to any one surpassing, creative thing but instead enjoyed a general, abiding affection for anything not of the place we felt we had been stuck.

We read comic books together, too. It was another way out. Ethan was the first person I knew who cracked the code of comic books as comfort food, seeing in the superhero books I continued to read certain formulas attained and then matched with varying success in cycles from that moment on. He saw pageantry and showmanship in everything. To Ethan's eye, Wolverine with his claws, stunt-hair and catchphrases was an actor as ridiculous and over-the-top as William Shatner preening madly in the green girdle shirt. Ethan never got swept up in the content of things like I did; he never looked out the window of his mom's car and wished he was living a Joy Chant fantasy novel. But he did manage to recognize a good time in material that for me had lost its magic as soon as I could no longer imagine taking part in the fantasy it presented. He always appreciated the show.

As we entered high school, Ethan and I gained the benefit of a recognized formal partnership sealed by obnoxious, indestructible boy behavior. We were debate partners who showed up hungover and snorted diet pills in the back of van to get up to a decent talking speed. We were class officers who openly talked about running dope to raise money for prom; it wasn't empty talk. I tried my best to intercede when Ethan wandered into physical situations he couldn't handle, and he did his best to talk me up to his girlfriends and their friends. We passed pornographic cartoons starring our teachers to one another in the back of Mr. Conners' Biology class and every so often skipped the same study halls to get down to Indianapolis to see stadium rock concerts of band we didn't care about. We knew people we shouldn't have. People we never heard of had heard of us, both good things and bad things. Mostly? We weren't scared. We were brave and stupid and very, very young. It's almost impossible to predict the man from the boy, but Ethan was smart and he was funny and more than I would wish to spare his family the grief of their loss I wish he'd had the chance to grow up just for his own sake, even if we stopped being friends somewhere along the way.

*****

As voted by statewide media, the double-murder of Ethan Dixon and Kimberly Dowell was the number one news story in Indiana for the year 1985. Potent symbolism drove much of the coverage. By virtue of several key sociological studies from the 1920s into the 1980s, Muncie had become known as the typical small American city. The murder of two young, popular children from well-known families said something irresistibly titillating about the boundaries of race and class shattered every day by the reach of violent crime. Since it was still 1985, the story failed to steamroll into the minor tabloid sensation it might have today. Reporters descended on the town by car, van and telephone no less intrusive for their relative legitimacy. Students stopped crying to speak on camera while others expressed resentment at both the cameras and those who sought them out. Coffins being loaded into the back of hearses were captured for posterity on the five o'clock news. The local reporters racked their brains for new angles to a story that really had very little to it beyond twenty column inches of background and two inches of known fact.

It never stopped, and barely slowed down. Teenagers are so dramatic about stuff that doesn't matter that plopping them in the midst of something that does is almost laughably unfair, like thirty kids hitting the self-importance lottery all at once. I grew up with nice people who only became nicer to one another when all of this stuff was buzzing around their heads, but there was still a lot of time alone. The main thing I recall, that thing that faded away far later than grief or sadness or even anger, was how scared so many of us were. How terrified I was. The murderer would never be caught. A small rush of clues hit the news within 36 hours of the event, a David Lynch-style laundry list of names in diaries and money signs scratched next to phone numbers. Chief among the clues was news of a black Monte Carlo with one light out eyewitnesses said rolled away from the park somewhere in the window when the shooting took place. We were scared of an outside threat and worried that someone close to us knew something he wasn't saying. For the next two years I spent most nights on the coach in my Mom's living room because it was the one place in the house I could sleep where I couldn't be seen from the outside. Some nights by myself, convinced there was somebody nearby, I would unlock and open the front and back doors so as to speed things along before deciding that tonight wasn't the night and finally turning in.

As time went by, the event grew in size and scope and the rumors as to what happened grew wilder and fouler. There was another girl involved. The local police were corrupt. A drug deal had been interrupted in the park. A prisoner in Texas knew the answer. Ethan was looking to protect Kim from someone with bad intentions. Every violent crime from two years before to two years after was linked to the event. We racked our brains for any clue, any dropped hint, even one that didn't make any sense, eager for anything to provide context or meaning. I woke up after falling asleep reading comics the night of the murder because I thought I heard gunshots, which makes no sense but there it is.

From the start, my friends and I tried to get past the event and its consequences, tried to avoid milking the incident for its drama and connection to local legend. We still felt smarter than what had happened somehow. We wanted to be too cool to wallow. No one is special, and people die all the time, and the best thing you can do is continue the way they would have wished for you to go on. We allowed the school district to put together a sad little garden with benches, a few graduation speeches touched on the loss of classmates and each of us it seemed fairly freaked out anytime anyone was in an accident or got sick enough to go to the hospital.

All of us still try to visit Ethan's parents when we find ourselves back in town. We talk about everything but.

*****

The summer of 1989 I met a woman who had secured the police files from the Dixon-Dowell case and was slowly developing theories. She was working towards her private investigation license and had set her eyes squarely on the area's biggest unsolved case. She had a client, even. I arranged with her to read the files front to back in the hope that something that hadn't been shared with me by the police would spark a memory that would lead to a connection. I drove my turd-brown Cutlass Ciera out to her farm one Saturday morning and dug into the documents on a box on the kitchen table. She was barefoot, wore gym shorts, and a pair of kids occasionally slipped in and out of the room. They asked if I played football, and at the time I still did.

I read the police report on the crime scene, although without visual aid. I learned which items of clothing had been soaked where and to what extent. I followed the events of their last date through eyewitnesses. I read the summaries of every personal friend interview. My own interview, with my mom in tow, had concentrated on any obvious knowledge of threats or fights at school, and dispelling rumors of a "Dungeons and Dragons" war between kids at my school and some teens out in the county. Every drug connection of my high school's acquaintance was outed by one student or another, information that as far as I can tell was never independently acted upon. I learned the names of people that they had placed in the park at the same time the shooting took place, and what they were doing there, the standard thing people are doing when they can't go home.

Nothing sparked a helpful recollection. The records yielded by the box became stranger and less helpful. The police department had hired or at least had contact with a handful of psychics, three of which focused on a black briefcase, two on a bridge over a creek. I read pages of phone-in hints, including a few that implicated me for knowing more than I had let on, which I wished to God had been true. I learned about an eyewitness who saw a carload of people arguing in the street outside their black car about a half-mile from the incident, someone who never interviewed again and eventually moved away. I read a lot of speculation about where the gun may have originated and in what stretch of river or woods it may have ended up. It was an avalanche of information that didn't come close to giving me an answer. On the way home I stopped and puked, but that night I slept really soundly.

*****

This is the point I usually weave together a sentence or three of lyric sadness, in an attempt to connect my really specific pain to something in yours. Frankly, I haven't earned it today. You can't sum up a life or a pair of lives in 2500 words. You can't encapsulate a time. This modest run-down of facts and impressions doesn't even do justice to my own experience, that thing that pressed down on me for years, a constant, dissenting vote against any notion I might hold that I was once a good friend, that there was a myth to my own life worth living out, that anything I did really mattered in the end. I wonder if anyone other than me thought about this stuff today, and why I felt the need to write about it when I knew ahead of time nothing of value would come of it.

We all lose people that are important to us. Some die; others fade away. These losses are the only endings we have that matter before our own. I used to believe that the murders and all those nights of barely-processed terror and guilt that followed had somehow been good for me. That those days helped correct my youthful arrogance and provided me with a wider appreciation of a larger number of people. That the loss has made me cherish the time we have left to spend in each other's company. More recently I've wondered if that's the time when I broke into a dozen pieces and never been the same since. Both are likely bullshit. All any of that stuff really made me was sad and scared. I still feel that way, especially on nights like tonight. Twenty years is a lifetime, or three years more than one, even when you've done so very little to make that time count.

*****

In 2011, I received an e-mail from a man saying he was a Muncie police officer and asking that this essay be taken down. I replied I would certainly take it down if a formal request on department stationery were made. I didn't hear back.