Johnny America


The En­cy­clo­pe­dia of Se­r­i­al Killers


Illustration of Jeffrey Dahmer

Jef­frey Dah­mer served his vic­tims poi­soned drinks, slit their throats and sodom­ized them, then chopped their bod­ies in­to pieces and went on about his nor­mal life. Some of them, parts of them, he ate.

It is late Ju­ly, 1991 and I am thir­teen. On Sun­day, my mom de­posits me in the care of her sis­ter Pauline. She drops a kiss on my fore­head, waves and dri­ves away. She’s off to Ger­many with the choral group. With­in twen­ty-four hours I’ve fin­ished my Christo­pher Pike nov­el, and with noth­ing to read, I’m rest­less. “Get your feet off the fur­ni­ture.” Aunt Pauline swats my calf. 

Jef­frey Dah­mer didn’t eat all of his vic­tims. Parts of them he tried, in var­i­ous ways, to pre­serve. They found sev­en skulls in his bed­room clos­et and a tor­so in his freez­er. In his fridge they found two hu­man hearts. Each heart had been wrapped up sep­a­rate­ly in plastic. 

Aunt Pauline lives across the street from the Bak­er Riv­er in Went­worth, New Hamp­shire. There’s a mud­dy lit­tle foot­path, maybe ten yards long, and at the bot­tom of that is the riv­er. It’s a great riv­er for swim­ming, not too deep or too fast. The best part is the wa­ter­fall. It’s not a wa­ter­fall. It’s just a rock that sticks out and the wa­ter splash­es over. It looks like noth­ing spe­cial, but I hap­pen to know that if you sit down in the riv­er and stick your head un­der­neath the rock, there’s an air pock­et. You can breathe there. 

I spend a lot of time with my head un­der the wa­ter­fall that last week of Ju­ly, equal parts thrilled and ter­ri­fied by the roar of wa­ter, the stink of moss, and the fact that there’s noth­ing at all to see of the world but the blue-green smear of the Bak­er Riv­er falling over me.

Jef­frey Dah­mer should have been caught last month. They found a teenag­er, dis­ori­ent­ed and naked, run­ning out of his apart­ment. But Dah­mer said it was just a mo­ment be­tween lovers, and the po­lice be­lieved him, and they let him go. 

Every day, hav­ing read and di­gest­ed the de­tails, I care­ful­ly place the news­pa­per back on the cof­fee ta­ble at just the an­gle at which I’d found it. I don’t want to talk to my aunt about Jef­frey Dah­mer. Of course I don’t. Aunt Pauline is all fold­ed sheets and rose bush­es and tea. She would nev­er want to talk about a se­r­i­al killer. She would nev­er get it.

Thurs­day night, Aunt Pauline doesn’t un­der­stand why I don’t want to watch De­sign­ing Women with her. How do I ex­plain I’d rather lie in bed and think about body parts in­stead? Aunt Pauline sniffs. “I’m on­to you.” She says she passed me that af­ter­noon walk­ing on the side of the Mount Moosi­lauke High­way. She’d seen the way I’d shook my hips. “I get it,” Aunt Pauline says. “I was a teenag­er too, you know.”

An in­fi­nite amount of Uh-uhs is not enough to con­vince her, but I swear on my life it is true. I had just been walk­ing to Shawnee’s for a Ben & Jerry’s Peace Pop. If my hips shook, it was be­cause it was hot in the sun and I was walk­ing fast be­cause I want­ed to get there sooner. 

Jef­frey Dah­mer is gay, and so is my mom now ap­par­ent­ly, so there’s that.

Be­fore she’d left, I’d promised my mom I’d use sun­screen, but I hadn’t promised her where. Each morn­ing, in the pri­va­cy of my room, I squirt white cream on­to my palm and out­line dozens of cir­cles along the skin on my arms and legs. My goal is to uti­lize the sun­screen to achieve a bright pink pol­ka-dot­ted look. And it’s work­ing! At least I think it is, a little.

These are some of the things I think about when my head is un­der the wa­ter­fall: What does it taste like to eat hu­man flesh? Why are some peo­ple gay? Al­so, how is it pos­si­ble to look, on the out­side, per­fect­ly nor­mal, per­fect­ly av­er­age and harm­less, but ac­tu­al­ly, on the in­side, be a monster?

Jef­frey Dah­mer killed his first vic­tim be­cause he liked him and didn’t want him to leave. He swooned over a shirt­less hitch­hik­er, and even though the man made ref­er­ences that he was straight, the two of them drank beers to­geth­er, they laughed to­geth­er, they were fast friends. It wasn’t un­til lat­er, when the guy start­ed talk­ing about head­ing home. Dah­mer didn’t like that so he stran­gled him.

On Sat­ur­day morn­ing, my dad dri­ves up 93 to fetch me for the week­end, per our usu­al. The case is all he wants to talk about. Of course he does. He’s a copy ed­i­tor at the Man­ches­ter Union-Leader. The very best days in the news­room, he’s al­ways told me, are the days when the big sto­ries break. We talk gross de­tails all the way through Tilton and Con­cord. Be­fore we get to his con­do, he swings by the mall, to B. Dal­ton Book­sellers, where I pick out a book ti­tled The En­cy­clo­pe­dia of Se­r­i­al Killers. “Tell me every­thing so I’ll know what to look out for in a dark al­ley,” he says when I open the book in the car.

More se­r­i­al killers have the mid­dle name “Wayne” than any oth­er mid­dle name. Se­r­i­al killers might live any­where, but the great­est num­ber, his­tor­i­cal­ly, per capi­ta, have hailed from the Pa­cif­ic North­west, from the Seat­tle area. Like my dad.

By Sun­day night I’m back in Went­worth. On Mon­day it rains, and on Tues­day it rains again. Wednes­day is sun­ny, but Aunt Pauline makes me go with her to the nurs­ery that she likes. As it turns out, I don’t head back to the Bak­er Riv­er again un­til late Thurs­day af­ter­noon. But I nev­er make it. I freeze on the foot­path when I see what’s go­ing on. 

It’s oc­cu­pied. Dou­ble oc­cu­pan­cy. There’s two peo­ple in there, un­der­neath my wa­ter­fall, which is weird be­cause I don’t re­mem­ber ever see­ing any­one un­der there be­fore. But it’s right in front of me. Shoul­ders, el­bows, hands, and knees. I don’t stand there long, ogling the head­less lovers, but I don’t have to. Some­times in life you lay your eyes on some­thing and you just know the mem­o­ry of it is go­ing to be burned in­to your skull forever. 

So I go. I turn around and walk back up the foot­path and across the street to Aunt Pauline’s house and up the stairs to my room. I put my feet on the bed, and con­tin­ue where I left off in The En­cy­clo­pe­dia of Se­r­i­al Killers. Chap­ter by chap­ter, killer by killer, for the next three days un­til my mom comes to pick me up and we go home.

Filed under Fiction on August 12th, 2022

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