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by John Carter

“Anger is a killing thing: it kills the man who angers, for each rage leaves him less than he had been before – it takes something from him.”
– Louis L’Amour

“Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned.”
– William Congreve

At about 1:30pm on October 12, 2011, 42-year-old Scott Evans Dekraai entered the Salon Meritage in Seal Beach, California, where he shot and killed his ex-wife and several other people, before surrendering to police.

The story was all-too-common, but the comments posted online were what I found most disturbing. The comments below are all real, posted online in response to the original news article. Even accounting for those trouble-making “Web trolls,” the number and content were amazing. Here are just a few examples:

– – –

“Women in a custody battle have lawyers and family court. Men have righteous anger and guns. Let’s see who wins.”

“She deserved it.”

“Let this be a lesson for all you psycho mothers who keep children away from fathers. Too many mothers are being allowed to poison children to hate their fathers.”

“There is blame for everyone. But only he will take the fall. His desperate act of wanting his own justice only masks the true injustice of ‘family court’.”

“We are seeing a lot more people (primarily men) that are tired of the de facto decision of ‘She gets to take your name, children and half of everything you have accumulated’ parsed out by judges that don’t see that granting one person is tearing another down. Today’s fathers seem to be a lot different than the absentee ones of a generation ago. Again, there is no justification for this, but you never know how some one is going to respond when everything (or the most important things) are taken away from them.”

– – –

The headline of the story was, “Seal Beach shooter, Scott Evans De Kraai, was angry because he thought he’d lose his son.”

And so he has. Not only lost his son, but taken his son’s mother … and father, and who knows what else? The article also said that “Friends and neighbors called Dekraai a doting father and good samaritan.”

“I don’t want people to think he is just an evil monster. He’s a nice guy, but he must have snapped,” said neighbor Stephanie Malchow. “If he was in a custody dispute, that would explain why he snapped. He loves his little boy more than anything else in the world.”

I had no idea where this story would go when I started writing it. It ended up with no conventional plot – a kind of Raymond Carver “slice of life,” or I should say, more properly, something in the style of Raymond Carver, from a writer who would love to be half as good.

One final irony … at the time, the eight deaths were the worst mass killing in Southern California since 2008, when nine people were killed … at a Christmas party.

God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay,
Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day;
To save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray.

O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy;
O tidings of comfort and joy!

– one –

Two men are seated in a comfortable room, talking. If we didn’t know that it’s a psychiatrist’s office, we might think they are old friends from college, a lesser Ivy, perhaps. They could be New Hampshire neighbors, college professors that took a sabbatical from an afternoon of raking leaves to have a drink.

Are these incidents getting more frequent?

How can I answer that? You don’t let me see all the papers.

But as far as the news that you do see … do they seem more frequent?

It’s probably a function of more people and more information … math, murder and 24/7 news. I do agree with you that the comments posted about the stories are the more interesting phenomenon. But we’ve talked about all this.

Not much. At this stage, why are you still so reluctant to talk about it?

Because the most boring people in the world are a) on a diet; b) have just found religion; or c) are going through a divorce. Talking about it is counterproductive. Self-indulgent. And ultimately, boring as hell.

How do you define not talking about it?

As the best of a bad set of options. Can it possibly be good to conjure up the darkest, angriest, most frightened version of me imaginable? How intensely can I hate? How frightened can I be without my heart stopping? For the last few years, before I left her, I used to experience this weird sort of mini-hallucination. When I’d come home from a business trip – or even sometimes at night moving through the house towards the kids’ rooms – I’d have this horrific image of them all … slaughtered, butchered, ruined. Everything I loved, tossed into the corner like a pile of bloody rags. I’m talking about one second, one slice of a second … snap! … and the vision’s gone.

When I’d been away … well, you know how it is with kids … they’d hear me coming in, so there’s one or all of them running towards you – daddy, daddy, daddy – and I’m safe again. I used to believe that they never saw that look of panic – of completely debilitating fear – just before I hid it.
(looks up, nods slightly with frightened eyes and adds, sotto voce)
You know? That terror?

It’s alright. I understand. Try to relax. Do you think you understand what it all means?

I don’t know. I’ve read that when we dream, all the characters represent us. The heroes, the villains, the character actors and cameo roles. I wasn’t really afraid that she would hurt them physically, but I knew that she was crippling them emotionally every day. And I was letting her do it. I could only parent so much. At some point, I had to go to work, to travel, and she could do a lot of damage during those times. Well-intentioned people say, “Why didn’t you do something”? What could I do? Kill her? Take them and run? I don’t buy that those parents have good intentions and “do it for the kids.” I think they’re usually mad because they lost a battle to someone they now hate. When people say that Life’s not fair, this is what they mean. There are some things that can’t be fixed. All you can do is wait. And hope that time can heal instead of poisoning you. I don’t have those visions anymore, thank God. That part of me is all gone.

– two –

The psychiatrist is alone now. He begins dictating notes, starting with the date, time, the patient’s name. But as he begins, another man – his boss at the hospital – enters the room.

How is he?

As he always is. Intelligent. Fascinating to talk to, really. He still avoids the topic of divorce, and even when I push him, for the most part, he sounds like an angry, but fairly reasonable, man.

Still in denial?

Completely. He talks about the murder as if it never happened, even condemns violence in similar situations.

What do you think would happen if you showed him the newspapers from when it happened?

My best guess is that he would see someone else in place of himself. Even if we pushed him to acknowledge the crime, he wouldn’t see himself as the killer. He’d fabricate a surrogate. Maybe the key is in a broader investigation of the phenomena. We learn what drives this in general and work towards the specifics of this case.

You can’t forget the comments, can you?

It is one fascinating element of the Internet age … immediate feedback from the public on these things.

But you said some of them are pranksters, right? What did you call them? Ogres?

Trolls. They make the most inflammatory posts possible, just to set people off. And probably some of these posts are from trolls. But not all of them. Some must be from genuinely angry men. My expectation was that because he had crossed the line to such an extreme, his support would evaporate, but the comments noted their admiration for how he was “finally standing up” and “refusing to be disrespected.” Tragic as it was, no single crime could frighten me the way those comments did.

What if it’s just a vocal, angry minority?

It’s not.

– three –

Now we see the psychiatrist getting into his car in the hospital parking lot. Before he buckles his seatbelt, he opens a leather briefcase and puts his latest dictation into an envelope marked “For the Police.” He’s always tried to finish every case, every project … or at least leave it in some kind of order, and he sees no reason to change that now. Especially now, with so much uncertainty. The police might kill him. He might kill himself. Once one decided to strike out into this undiscovered country, the future got very fuzzy.

He opens the glove compartment and checks the pistol there. Loaded. Ready. He knows their children will be with his in-laws at this time of day. And he knows she’ll be at work.

He is, if nothing else, methodical.

– four –

Two men are seated in a comfortable room. If we didn’t know that it’s a psychiatrist’s office, we might think they are old friends from college.

I had to stop her. She was poisoning my children, and I’d tried every legal method. Everyone said I had to do something. And I agreed. So much of life is calculation. Don’t you find?

How so?

Every choice is a rejection of every other choice available. Risk-reward ratio. Cumulative distribution. Probability. We’re given so many options. How can one be more moral than any other?

Some don’t hurt other people. Some even help – help others and yourself. You know that most people find that satisfying.

Not me. Not anymore. But I remember that man I used to be. He’s far away now.

Far away?

Yes. The primary feeling is one of distance, remoteness. When I left the hospital that day, driving to kill her, I drove past a green lawn covered with beautiful yellow leaves from a ginkgo tree. We had one in our yard when I was a child, and I’d play in huge piles of those yellow leaves every fall. I drove by in slow motion, and it was like remembering someone I once knew but had forgotten. I knew that boy.

I knew him well … a boy who took pleasure in those things, some type of quiet, but deep, satisfaction. But on that day, and now, on this one, they’re just yellow leaves on a green lawn. Like the memory of a photograph. The recognition of beauty without any emotional content.

I’ve left all that far, far behind.


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by John Carter

Note: All poem excerpts are from T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The Greek and Latin are from the introduction to “The WasteLand” and translate as follows:

“For with my own eyes I saw the Sibyl hanging in a bottle,
and when the young boys asked her, ‘Sibyl, what do you want’?
She replied, ‘I want to die’.”


APRIL is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Her name was Whitney. A timid girl, homely, I suppose. But a lot of that came from being poor. She dressed in near rags, tattered hand-me-downs that screamed “uncool.” A cheap pair of big, thick glasses sat astride her face. And even they were damaged, with gray duct tape on the right side. She hid her crooked teeth by never smiling.

Her lunch, when she had one, was brought in an old paper bag that was as rumpled as her clothes, faded from days of being carried to school and home again. These inadvertent faux pas made her a magnet for the teasing of the popular kids, who made fun of her poverty and plainness by calling her “homemade” and “sack lunch.”

I didn’t participate. I was the adolescent version of Sweden in 1939, safe in my neutrality, never guilty of anything more than lacking the courage to take a stand and help her. Afraid to put my own popularity at risk by the simple act of trying to be her friend, even though I now believe that she might have been a good friend if I had given her that chance.

And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

Whitney sat in front of me in Ms. Williams’ class, both of us right by the windows. The day I remember most clearly was one of those beautiful Spring days in central Georgia, the middle of April. We had been allowed to open up the windows while we were given some quiet time to finish reading two T.S. Eliot poems and write a brief essay on each. I finished early and sat watching a ladybug inside the window screen, navigating her escape. At first, she crawled back and forth with so much energy and determination, I felt myself cheering her on. But as she failed to find her way out, I could see the weight of futility start to wear her down. The little legs slowed, and she took more frequent rest breaks. I noticed a small rip in the screen that offered escape, but the ladybug couldn’t seem to find it.

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.

I remember the moment when I realized Whitney was watching me … and the ladybug. Time slowed, and I could see every detail of the ladybug’s bright wings. The slight breeze through the open window was thick and slow as molasses, and the warm sun glinted off the left lens of Whitney’s glasses, illuminating a small crack that I had not noticed before. I sat still as a stone, a spectator in this dance of life and death, a moment pregnant with potential. I could feel our futures stretching out before us, pulling us toward some resolution that we could not yet divine. And I could see Whitney’s destiny. College was not even a dream for her, nor happiness. She would be trapped, too, in some trailer park, caring for her parents, and later, an abusive husband.

In that instant, my young mind seized upon the certainty that we do not seek happiness in this life, but consistency. We turn again and again towards that which we know. All Whitney had ever known was poverty, torment and sadness. And no one would save her from their comfortable, if weathered, embrace.

Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere,
et cum illi pueri dicerent: Σίβυλλα τί θέλεις; respondebat illa: ἀποθανεῖν θέλω.

Just as the ladybug seemed about to give up, to lie down and die. Whitney touched the edge of the screen’s tear with the end of her pencil, pulling it open just enough. The ladybug saw her chance, and she crawled to the outside of the screen. She seemed to flex her wings a few times in a tiny victory dance. Then … zip, she was gone.

Whitney looked at me with sad eyes behind those big thick glasses. She pulled her pencil out, let the tear close, and turned back around.

At that moment, I saw Whitney for the first time. A pretty young girl, really, with a kind, wistful smile. She could only dream of cheerleading and sports, dates to the prom and valentines that never came. Trapped in a sad life of desperate poverty and the most cruel teasing, she was still kind enough to take a minute to conspire in the escape of the bright and the beautiful.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

That moment was over 50 years ago. I am an old man now, and most of those who loved me and were loved by me are gone. But I think of Whitney often and wish I had shown her the same kindness that I saw from her in that moment a lifetime ago. I hope she found her way to fly to a life away from all the sadness that I never had the courage to help her face.

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown

‘Till human voices wake us, and we drown.