Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Hard Life of Harold Butler

Harold Butler might have been a happy man, were he not Harold Butler. Even his parents joked about his name; the little But-ler they’d say, emphasizing the But, or butt if you prefer, followed by parental giggling that stung like an overenthusiastic cheek pinch. It had never occurred to them, said his father Tallin when asked by Harold on his 9th birthday, that people who were not Butlers would make great hay out of the combination of the names “Harry” and “But-ler”.

And so Harry was forced to forgive his parents for his curse, believing them to not be malicious, but rather irresponsible idiots. See, were Harold not Harry Butler he’d not have been mercilessly teased by friend and foe, child and adult, and even the clergy at Blessed Be Nondenominational Church who'd mention his name during sermons when it was obvious the crowd had begun to doze off; hearing the name Harry Butler always brought a smile to people’s faces, and another few minutes attention to the reverend. And were Harold not teased mercilessly, he’d never have run from a crowd of taunters, vision obscured by welling tears, senses dulled by the numbness that comes when a human being emotionally collapses on itself. Had he not run, it’s likely he’d not have blindly stepped onto the highway, been hit by a 1958 Pontiac Chieftain driven by the good Mrs. Plurd who was on her way to the second service at Our Lady of Justice Catholic community, nor have had his eye socket impaled by the hood ornament leaving him sighted still but with a nasty scar and a permanent squint, nor would he have a more than noticeable limp, suffered a series of small strokes leaving his face somewhat “tilted” nor found himself with a speech impediment due to presumed but never medically verified brain damage.

Harold had been friendless all his life to that point. Sure he’d had his parents until they were accidentally drowned during a cruise ship accident when he was 17, but they weren’t really friends like parents believe themselves to be nowadays. For most of his waking hours he’d been touchy, jumpy, a little quick to rile, and kids just didn’t “dig him” as Larry Schmidt would tell him over and over. Now with all his disfigurements and the rare but unanticipatable shooting pain which made him cry out at the worst possible moments, it would be all that much harder to make people “dig him”. Yet, he tried; he never had gotten used to being alone. He wanted a friend, and if not a singular person, a group in which he could feel camaraderie; a friendship light perhaps, but friendship all the same.

Unfortunately Harold was not a very likeable fellow, even for those who could ignore his appearance. Moody, some people said, morose, taciturn; acidic according to Martha White who had seen Harold as a project that she might curry favor with her Lord for good deeds done amongst the wretched and infirm. Harold had recognized Martha’s “goodness” right away, and would have tossed her off within days had he not been so desperate for the company of one of the opposite sex, for the soft vision, for the smells and high pitched sounds, and… oh it was lovely for a time. Yet eventually reality overcame fantasy and Harold could not set the truth aside for the more pleasant lie any longer, becoming quite rude and even vulgar in the lady’s presence until she was forced to admit her “project” had been a failure.

Harry toiled away in the basement of Dayton’s Department Store, catching overfilled boxes that constantly made their way down the store’s shipping conveyor, and tossing them onto pallets for warehousemen who would snatch them with their fork lifts and carry them off into the darkness. It wasn’t a good job, quite unpleasant in fact, but Harold had tired of the application process after 127 times being turned away by prospective employers who obviously hired on first impression alone. Harold had seen a mirror. He didn’t make a good first impression. Life was what it was, so he took the next offering and stuck to it, minimum wage and no benefits and all.

At least he was alone here, where he could think of not being alone. Yes, Harold was conflicted. People were his downfall, people had made him the cripple he’d become, people had made him hate them, hate being near them, hate being one of them; and yet, God, how does a person live without at least one person with which to share life, and even love if that could happen to a man such as himself.

It was a decade beyond his accident, a decade without social interaction of a congenial sort, a decade in the shadows. Harold had come to his wit’s end. He must have friends; he must join the human race and be one with the sunlight again. He’d decided to join a church. Churches were full of good people his mom had always told him; unlike his coworkers or the people at the pubs he’d visit, church people couldn’t turn him down, church people would have to like him because that’s what church was all about… being kind to one another.

Harold joined Our Lady of Justice Catholic Community, after having taken instruction in the ways of the faith, and having been baptized into the fold. Immediately he noted a difference in his life. People were smiling in his direction. No one had actually approached him or engaged him in conversation, but many had peered, and many had nodded and grinned and even waved a couple of fingers like he’d seen construction workers do when they called each other buddy and shared their lunches. For weeks he tested his patience, he held back, waited for the world to come to him as surely it would. He smiled, often, for the first time since he’d been a baby; and though it looked a bit odd, what with the right side of his face not rising so much as wrinkling making his smile a bit more of a tilde (~), people did seem to note his attempts at whimsy and react approvingly.

But he grew tired of waiting for a stranger to take his hand. He’d seen how the choir members chatted with one another in rehearsal, heard them make plans to dine together or go for tea and chatter at some nearby café. They seemed to all be happy in one another’s presence, and happy, truly happy is exactly what Harold wanted to be. He would join the choir.

It’s been said that no church has ever refused a member of their community who dearly wanted to sing. Harold had heard this, and had mentioned it in passing one Sunday morning as he entered the building and made his way past the greeters at the door. “Surely” one of the men had said; “I’ve heard that too” another said, though he tilted his head as if he had water in his ears and was trying to release it onto his coat, giving Harold the impression that perhaps he’d not actually heard it but was only trying to be agreeable. No matter, church people wouldn’t lie he thought, and if they say it’s true it must be true. He handed Mr. Bellmont the choir director an application that very morning.

Mr. Bellmont was quite appreciative and met with Harold after the ten o’clock mass. They arranged for Harold to come to the next rehearsal, that Tuesday evening.

Harold had been a reasonable singer in his youth as he recalled it. He might have been a member of the Glee Club had he been able to stand being around people who made fun of him, he believed. He would sing constantly, though only when he was alone; not that he didn’t think his voice was exquisite but because he knew he would attract attention from one or another of the bullies who just loved to kick him out of a good mood. Still, he sounded great to himself, so he had no fear of not fitting right in to this church choir, making friends, going out for tea and hopefully crumpets… all that stuff that friends do.

Greta Halfwinkle, the choir first chair described what happened on Tuesday evening as a “Great Caterwaul”. Fred Bishop simply packed his music in his leather and gold briefcase and left the building without a word. Jerry and Candy DeLacroix laughed until they cried and Laslo Kosa held his hands over his ears and looked to the sky as if pleading for the man in charge to smite him dead.

Harold’s debut wasn’t good. It was downright awful. Whether Harold had ever been a reasonable singer or not is in question, but the accident had conspired to liquefy whatever of Harold’s brain matter that would be responsible for vocalizing in song, and leaked it out his ears and onto some random sidewalk. Harry howled, literally. Harry chuffed like a coyote who’s had a lion steal his dinner, yowled like a sled dog whose musher has suffered a heart attack on the trail. Harry had a bad, bad audition.

Mr. Bellmont took his duties seriously. This would never do, he had to be the first church choir director anywhere, according to the legend, who would turn down a member who truly wanted to sing. He was kind, and gentle. He asked Harold to join him in an open meeting room and let him know as generously as possible that Harold and the church choir would not be a good match. He suggested many alternatives to song, but Harry didn’t hear a single one of them. Harry was busy, thinking, thinking hard.

Harold Butler smiled and shook Mr. Bellmont’s hand, looking directly into the man’s soul to see if he could see what color it was. He saw white mostly, Mr. Bellmont was a good man. A much better person than either Jerry or Candy DeLacroix. A far far better man than that pompous snake Fred Bishop who lived at 336 Chamford Lane in St. Paul as Harry would soon learn. And a man who would never utter an unkindness, a taunt, a contemptible rudeness like that flaming bitch Greta Halfwinkle. Harry said his goodbyes and thanked the Choir Master for his time. Harry had things to do.

A few weeks from that Tuesday Mrs. Halfwinkle went missing. Her children thought it was very unusual, though there was some evidence that she had packed a few things in a case and had driven off on some spontaneous lark, so nothing was done about the disappearance until Mr. Bishop vanished. There was then a conversation about it being two members of the choir and that being too much a coincidence to ignore, until two random people from the general area were found to be absent. Within ten days the number of missing persons had swelled to ten, four of which were members of the same church choir.

Harold was not happy about the way things had worked out, and that was the real rub; he’d set out with such hope that he could for once in his life feel true happiness. It was not a surprise that it all came crashing down, but it became the last straw.

It was not easy for him to kill, and even harder to torture. He tried to be as nice as he could about it. In fact Mrs. Halfwinkle had screamed so loud and long that eventually he’d just slit her throat and ended it, rather than really make her pay for her insulting ways. It was damned clever of him, he’d thought, that while he really needed to crucify these monsters in order to feel absolute justice had been done, he chose to use an “x” shaped device rather than the standard. In this way he could symbolically cap his victims painful ends with a representation of the community to which they’d all belonged, from which they’d so cruelly shunned him, and yet, just in case God would take offense at his using the same type of cross on his casualties as was used to kill His only Son, he found a way to skirt that possibility.

13 people in all made their way to the grave by way of the psychosis of Harold Butler. It might have been many more if Detective Maury Weggins hadn’t decided to keep an eye of the odd Mr. Butler, and follow him on one of his late night jaunts along the Mississippi river shoreline. The detective was quite brave to have continued on once Harry had removed a metal grating from a rain sewer outlet, and Maury walked into the echoed darkness without first calling for backup. Luckily Mr. Wiggins was wearing running shoes and had great sense of balance, even while his senses were slightly deprived of stimuli. He was able to keep Harry’s flashlight in view as the man plunged ever southward, and softly stepped astride the water that pooled in the pipe’s center.

When Harry’s light vanished a chill ran down the detective’s spine, but it was too late to turn back; he figured he was a mile from the river, well under the Univac building that sat atop Sutter Bluff. Every cop knew of caves in the area, perhaps there was an opening.

Indeed, a hundred yards ahead Maury found a large space in the wall of the sewer that had deteriorated and caved into the tunnel. He’d actually felt it first, in the form of a warmish breeze coming from the hole and barreling down the waterway. He climbed up through the opening and found himself in an enormous sandstone cave, though he was reckoning the size purely on instinct, his guess based on reverberation time and air pressure. He could see a slight coloration to the fore and the left. The light must be in that direction.

As if playing blind man’s buff Maury moved slowly, arms out and searching, feet more sliding than stepping on the sandy floor. Soon he could spot it well enough to adjust his eyes to the darkness and actually see where he was going. It wasn’t long before he’d come upon Harry’s handiwork; the poor Mrs. Halfwinkle, indignantly staring off into the choir loft beyond.

Not much can be said about the capture and eventual trial of Harold Butler. Harry was tired, he’d thought doling out justice would be cathartic but it proved to be lacking in that department. It never had gotten easier; in fact he’d only continued on after killing all the choir members he’d set his sights on because he didn’t know what else to do with himself. At the very least he was being offered friendship by his victims, in return for sparing their lives; and even though he perfectly well knew how hollow these overtures were, he did allow them to bathe him in the ambrosia of the wanted, the tiny tinge of happiness he received, however fake its foundation made his suffering through yet one more murder nearly worth the effort.

Harold’s last day came one year and a week after his incarceration and placement into the St. Peter State Detention Hospital. He’d been in solitary confinement until that moment he was allowed to mingle during a lunch period in the patient cafeteria. He was so lonely, he just wanted to be happy for a moment, just one smile, just one kind word. He tried to make a friend of another inmate. Unfortunately, as were many of the choices Harold had made throughout his life, this was not a good one, and had a shiv attached. Still, Harold had his smile in the end. It was good to have it be over. He’d never again have to suffer being a single grain of sand in a vast, vast ocean.

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