The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers
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.
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