Incident 1: August 2017
As I sat in my yard enjoying the late afternoon sun and a pre-dinner beer, I saw him walking diagonally across Johnson Street and into my yard — a twenty-something white guy with a buzz cut and an anger problem. He cut across the corner of my lot, not noticing me, though I sat 12 feet away in the shade of our giant maple tree. He was too busy yelling into his phone. Don’t talk to me like that. Don’t fucking talk to me like that!
Though our house is on a street used as an unofficial bypass for two traffic-choked thru-ways, it is a quiet neighborhood, generally speaking. It’s a neighborhood people drive through, or around, without much noticing as they traverse town, from the Westside to the South Hills, or from the University District to the big box stores on Reserve Street. It’s a neighborhood filled with kids, families, elderly folks, young couples, single people — pretty much anyone you might see at the Food Farm or Westside Lanes.
But I’m a writer with a healthy imagination, and I don’t have people in my life who talk like the angry guy on the phone, so I chalked the situation up to me being sensitive, until the six cop cars descended on my block, five or 10 minutes after the man passed by.
The first one pulled up next to my house. The other pulled into my driveway, behind my van. A third pulled into the alley, and three more split off to circle the block. I thought to point out the direction the man had taken, but no one asked. I thought to check on my kids, but they were safe in the house. As I stood there in my yard, beer in hand, watching the show, my ex-husband pulled up, fresh off the road from Los Angeles, where he lives. Each August he takes the kids for a two-week stretch and I leave town for a much-needed vacation from a year spent solo-parenting.
“Hey,” he said, and gave me a hug.
“Hey,” I said. “Check out all the cop cars. I think they’re looking for this angry dude who just walked by.”
We watched until the scene died down, then went inside to see the kids.
In the morning, I drove off in my van to spend a week on the Pacific coast, and another in Portland with friends. I got back to Missoula just after the eclipse, and days before the start of the new school year, to find my neighborhood, my city and much of my state choked by smoke.
My friend Sarah said to me soon after, “So, crazy times in your hood, huh?” Sarah lives up the Rattlesnake, a neighborhood I’d coveted years ago, but couldn’t afford.
I asked what she meant, and she filled me in: A couple of blocks away, in a house so close we can see it from the corner of my lot, a man and a woman had killed another man and woman, cut up their bodies and put them in bins of chemicals in an attempt to dissolve the corpses. A roommate had tipped off the cops, and they’d been caught at the house, a couple of weeks before, right around the time the angry guy walked through my yard.
I looked up the mugshots of the man and woman who’d been arrested. The guy I had seen certainly looked like one of the alleged murderers — Augustus Standingrock — though I don’t know for sure. Maybe it was a coincidence. Maybe the man who crossed my yard was just an angry guy who resembled Standingrock, and those six cops cars showed up to solve some other crime in the hood that I never saw in the news. Either way, the angry guy and the cop cars were harbingers of things to come in our pocket of town between here and there.
In the summer of 2011, I moved back to Missoula after a decade-long absence. I’m no native. I first moved here from the Midwest in the fall of 1993 to go to college, and I never left. Yes, I am one of those people, the lifelong transplants who, depending on how you look at it, either make or ruin this town. Regardless, we are a large part of the population, the part that was not born to this place, but chooses it, out of love.
I recall clearly my physical reaction to seeing Missoula for the first time. I was 17 and visiting colleges out West. I’d never, until that day, been farther west than Chicago. I stood around the baggage claim in Missoula’s small airport, admiring the cowboy boots on the man standing next to me. I looked up and he smiled at me as he grabbed his bag. I thought, He looks just like Huey Lewis. The shuttle driver for the Holiday Inn laughed and assured me the man looked like Huey Lewis because he was Huey Lewis. But I was distracted: In the few minutes between exiting the terminal and boarding the shuttle, I felt a tingling on the top of my head that reminded me of an Emily Dickinson line about poetry: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
I looked up at what I then thought of as mountains, but now call by name — the North Hills, Mount Jumbo, Mount Sentinel — and I knew I’d found it, found home, a word I’d never attached to Indiana, the state where I was born.
I moved to Missoula the next fall, met my husband (a native) during our college years, and lived in town until 2000, the year we moved away for graduate school. We spent a decade mostly in Texas, had two kids, and talked often about making our way back to Missoula.
For years I thought the only way back would come through good fortune. Instead it came from the opposite. My employer in Texas closed its doors in 2008, when I was weeks pregnant with my second child. Starting in 2010, we endured what I jokingly called our “homeless year,” though we were never truly homeless. We strung together a series of house-sitting gigs and months-long visits with family while we scrambled for work.
By spring of 2011, we returned to Missoula to stay with one of my favorite people, my kids’ step-grandfather and my former stepfather-in-law, whom we all call Sully. Sully had just bought a duplex out by Reserve and Third, and he let us use his two spare rooms until we found a place of our own.
After being gone for nearly 11 years, I discovered I loved Missoula more than ever. My kids would turn 2 and 5 over the summer, and my son would start kindergarten in the fall. Most everything we owned fit in our Saturn wagon. By fall, their father and I would divorce, and he would leave the state for good — a twist I did not see coming.
I thought I knew Missoula pretty well when I moved back, and I found that the areas I’d frequented comforted me with their same-ness. I knew the University District, of course, and I’d lived in a tiny pyramid house on the Northside for five years. I’d hiked up the Rattlesnake, and I’d visited my then-husband’s relatives in the South Hills. I’d found my way to the mall on occasion, and farther, to Lolo, and the mountains south and west of there. But this area where Sully lived, near the Good Food Store, was a stretch of town I’d not much considered.
In 2013, I bought a house in the heart of this area, which a friend told me some call Felony Flats. It’s bordered by Russell and Reserve to the east and west, and Third and 14th to the north and south. Some call it the Southside, or Franklin to the Fort, though both labels feel too broad, too generic. You could call it Missoula’s affordable housing neighborhood, though the gap between wages and housing costs in Missoula renders even the least expensive housing unaffordable for many.
As a newly single mother with two young kids and a limited income, this was the only neighborhood I could afford. Our lease on a rental near the university had ended in August of 2012, so the kids and I surfed — not quite homeless, but without a home of our own — for months while I house-hunted. We stayed in a single-wide trailer near Westside Lanes for two months with a kind-hearted friend. Then we stayed with Sully near Third and Reserve again.
Meanwhile, I viewed dozens of houses. None of them were quite right. But the moment I walked into that house — our house — all three of us experienced that same magic I’d felt when I first set eyes on the Missoula valley 20 years earlier.
In January of 2013, I signed the papers, got the keys and moved into our 1,200-square-foot 1940s bungalow. We owned so little that our voices and footsteps echoed off the walls even after we’d unpacked. Still, we felt rich. This was it. We’d found home.
Incident 2: September 2017
I recall listening to the come and go of traffic on Johnson that night because I could not sleep. The valley had finally cleared of smoke from the record-breaking wildfires, so I could open the windows again. I’m not prone to insomnia, but over the previous month, my brain had begun kicking into overdrive when I closed my eyes, and I lay awake in the dark of my upstairs bedroom with too many things on my mind. My first book — a memoir about cars, due out the next summer — was in final edits on my virtual desktop. I had started a stressful freelance writing gig that I hoped might pay the bills through winter. Our basement was in a state of partial remodel, and I had no idea how I might afford to finish it. In the meantime, I’d been watching the chaotic and painful decline of my mother, who had turned 64 the week before. In August, she’d landed herself in a nursing home due to brain injuries from her longtime alcoholism.
These thoughts ran on repeat like a filmstrip flickering between sleep and me. Around 11 p.m., I heard a car accelerating. Then, a second later, a crash, or a jumbled series of crashes. I jolted out of bed and to the window. I felt sure someone had run into my van parked on Johnson, but when I looked out I saw only the usual dark of our neighborhood at night.
I threw on clothes and shoes and bolted outside, where others were starting to gather. Someone said a motorcycle had crashed in the alley, behind what I’ve come to think of as Lucy’s house, so named after the white pit bull who spends much of her time tethered to a tree in the backyard. But I didn’t hear Lucy. I didn’t hear much of anything. No sirens. No distress calls. My cousin had died in a motorcycle crash a few years before, and I know enough about them to think twice before approaching such a scene. There are certain things you can’t un-see.
Someone yelled toward the alley, Are you OK? Someone yelled back, No!
But otherwise the scene was eerily calm. At one point, someone in the alley requested towels. I called 911 to be sure the event had been reported. All this unfolded in minutes.
The ambulances arrived first, then the police cars. They worked quietly, without an apparent sense of emergency. I knew then that someone had likely died.
Soon, the section of Johnson between the neighbors’ house and mine was sealed off as a crime scene, the police tape stretching from Lucy’s fence to ours. I heard the police say it had been not a motorcycle but a car that had run through my neighbor’s yard and come to rest in the alley, but I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t see how that had happened, even when I went back to my upstairs window and tried to piece the event together from my elevated view.
I wouldn’t fully understand until I saw a recap on the television news and read a report in the next day’s newspaper. Once I understood, the logistics floored me — the mad velocity of the car, and the miracle that the damage had not been worse.
A couple of guys had been joyriding when the 20-year-old driver accelerated far beyond what’s reasonable as they headed into the intersection at Johnson and Mount. He turned left onto Johnson and continued to accelerate, losing control and crashing into the neighbor’s yard. (This brings to mind what I didn’t hear as I lay in bed that night: brakes. The driver didn’t even brake.)
The car hit the neighbor’s chain-link fence, plowed through their 20-foot flagpole, and through the slim space between their parked car and house, taking a chunk out of the rear bedroom where their daughter slept, through the trampoline and the shed at the rear of the property, coming to rest, finally, in the alley.
The driver died at the scene, and the passenger, who’d had the good sense to wear his seat belt, was conscious and relatively unharmed.
Later that night, as police lights continued to flash through my bedroom window, two thoughts came to me: How lucky it was that the teenage kids had not been outside on the trampoline with their light-up hula hoops, as they often were on warm nights at that hour.
And that the neighbor’s dog, Lucy, had not been in the yard, sleeping where she often slept, directly in the path of destruction. In fact, I had not seen Lucy in weeks. She was gone, had been gone. I don’t know if she died or ran away or went to a new home, but I was relieved, at least, to know that she never met that runaway car.
For five years, I’d watched Lucy pace in her yard as I wrote a book about cars. Had I somehow drawn that rogue vehicle toward me, in the night, my anxiety a cosmic magnet for automotive chaos? These thoughts, I know, are illogical, the result of a monotonous writing life and an active imagination. But still.
Shortly after moving in, we named our house Headquarters. The kids and I have a habit of naming things. Our white van is named Trooper (short for Clone Trooper). Our couch is Jeffrey. Our dishwasher is Michael. Our Christmas tree this year they named Margaret. Perhaps it’s a habit born to compensate for our lack of traditional ties. My family lives 1,800 miles away, in Indiana. The kids’ dad lives in California. Some of his family lives in town, but our connections to others are tenuous. Nontraditional. We’re transplants. In some odd way, the naming of things helps us grow roots.
Just after we moved in, we pulled up to Headquarters and, as I began to open the car door, I noticed a white pit bull slinking around our yard. She looked young and scared and sketchy. I chose to ignore her and turned my back to open the rear door and unbuckle my 3-year-old from her child seat. As I turned, the dog advanced. I felt it, the way I once felt the presence of a mountain lion before I saw it, feasting on a fresh kill in the saddle of Mt. Sentinel.
I yelled at the dog, which lunged within two feet of me, aiming for a nip. She backed away but remained between us and the house. I got back in the car and tuned in the “Pea Green Boat” for the kids, who were fascinated and frightened by the pacing white dog. After 10 minutes of thinking, I called Animal Control — not a choice I liked, but the only choice I could think of. The dog disappeared before animal control showed up, and I ushered the kids quickly inside.
Once I’d set up a desk for myself upstairs, on the side of my bedroom facing Johnson, I saw where the dog lived, directly across the street. I work from home, mostly, and spent long stretches staring into space, searching for words. I’d end up watching Lucy, as her family called her, lying in the shade of a tree in her backyard.
Lucy got loose more than once. She threatened aggression in a way not uncommon for an unsocialized, understimulated dog. The kids quickly learned to stay inside when we spotted Lucy on the run, and run she did — no one could catch her.
At night, I’d often hear her crying from her backyard.
One night not long after we met Lucy, I left the kids with a sitter so I could go out for a rare evening with friends. The sitter was also one of their daycare teachers, and when I got home, she called her boyfriend to come pick her up. We chatted for a bit as we waited. After 10 minutes or so, the front door opened, and a man the sitter’s age stepped inside. He didn’t look like her type, what with the dreadlocks wrapped up in a tapestry wound like a turban on his head.
Come on in, I said, and he did.
The sitter had her back to the door. She turned around and smiled at the man, then turned back to me and finished what she’d been saying before he entered.
Something was off. Nice meeting your boyfriend, I said.
The smile fell from her face. That’s not my boyfriend, she said.
Adrenaline rushed through me, standing every hair on my body on end. I nodded. I kept calm. The man looked at me, raised his palms waist-high toward the ceiling.
I’m sorry, he said. This looked like a house where I would be welcome.
His eyes were dilated. Perhaps the camper van had looked to him like a beacon on a cold night.
My kids are here, sleeping, I said. You’ll have to go.
He apologized again, hands up still, and backed out the door.
The sitter and I nervous-laughed until I realized she wasn’t laughing anymore. Me? I couldn’t stop. My adrenaline come-down was manic. Finally, I called the police, worried that the man was either dangerous, or might waltz into another house in the middle of the night and get himself shot.
In hindsight, we’re incredibly lucky that it wasn’t Augustus Standingrock who walked through our door that night. I later learned that, the July before his murder arrest, Standingrock had been arrested for a break-in and stabbing on Montana Street, where the kids and I had stayed in my friends’ trailer.
That spring, the snow thawed, revealing a yard bursting with beauty and complexity. The house had gone on the market just before Thanksgiving, and I’d never had a chance to see the yard without snow. There were beds of irises and daffodils with sage, lavender and native grasses scattered throughout. There was a crabapple tree as tall as the house, so remarkable in full bloom that strangers pull over to snap photos. I was no gardener, and raising a 3-year-old and a 6-year-old left little time for hobbies, but I would learn.
In spring we built a fence out of cedar, as if those hundreds of three-foot planks could keep the kids safe, and the Lucys and intruders of the world out. I set the kids up with buckets and shovels and a blanket to sit on while I went about the work of learning how to distinguish a weed from a flower.
Incident 3: December 2017
On a pre-Christmas December day while I was working at my desk, looking out on not only Lucy’s yard but Mount Sentinel, Mount Jumbo, even Pattee Canyon, my computer spit out a notification that I’d been tagged in a social media post. This always induces in me a mild sense of panic, as if I’ve done something wrong. In this case, I was in the clear, but the news was grim.
My neighbor, whose house I can see from my own, tagged me in an article about the discovery of a box of bones at a house just one street over and one block down from my own. The box held rocks, teeth, part of a jaw bone and other bone fragments. Though the news didn’t break until December, the bones had been found Sept. 27 by people cleaning out a vacated rental. That’s just 10 days after that car crashed through my neighbor’s yard. The bones, the article said, were believed to be those of three children, ranging in age from 2 to 10.
Because it involved children — children roughly my own kids’ ages, and the ages of all of their friends — this news hit closest to home, figuratively speaking. If I’m being literal, the car crash was closest to us (across the street, to the east), the shed where the bones were found comes in second (a block and a half northwest), and the double murder the farthest (two and a half blocks south). Which puts Headquarters in the middle of an incredibly tight trifecta of dark happenings.
I tried not to let fear grab hold, but I couldn’t shake that eye-of-the-storm feeling I used to get as a kid in the Midwest during tornado season, when the air would go still and the light would turn an unnatural shade of yellow and I knew, on instinct, there was a funnel cloud on the horizon.
Soon another article came out reporting speculation that the bones might belong to three boys who went missing in Michigan on Nov. 26, 2010, the day after Thanksgiving.
I thought back to where my family had been then. It was our not-quite-homeless year, and I’d taken a temporary job teaching creative writing at my old high school in northern Michigan. The pay had been low but the school offered housing and health insurance. The kids were 1 and 4, and we’d spent Thanksgiving Eve driving across Michigan to spend the holiday with my parents in Indiana. I remember we had just received a plastic card from the state of Michigan that looked like a credit card, but everyone knew it was a food stamps card. My daughter had the stomach flu, and I stripped her down to her diaper in a McDonald’s bathroom after she’d thrown up all over herself and her car seat.
I cleaned up my child and we continued south across Michigan just as, perhaps, those boys were preparing for their last Thanksgiving before being carried away for good, only for our paths to converge again years later, in Missoula, Montana.
My father is a Jungian social worker who instilled in me a disbelief in the notion of coincidence. I have a habit of seeing patterns and trying to read these patterns like tea leaves. I’m no psychologist, but I know enough to know that our interpretations of synchronistic events do not reveal truths about God or the universe or the nature of reality so much as they reveal who we are. Our character. Our world view.
The psychic weight of those three events occurring within a 10-week span still leads me to ask, What does it mean? To have found our home in the middle of some Bermuda Triangle of deadly events?
I have no idea.
But I do know that I feel the opposite of misfortune. I could not afford our house at current market value. We are incredibly lucky to have snagged it during a slow time of year for real estate (the holidays), and before the market bounced back from the Great Recession.
When we moved into Headquarters, I promised my son he could finish the school year at the school where he’d already begun kindergarten. It was a large school with a good reputation where he seemed to fly under the radar because he was quiet and the work came easily to him. We’d been warned that the school he’d switch to in the fall, the school two blocks from our house, was “rough and tumble.” A Title I school, which means it receives federal funding to support a low-income student body.
The next fall, I walked my son to the new school each day, cup of coffee in hand, and I met him when the bell rang in the afternoon to walk him home. By the end of the first week, the principal was waving goodbye, addressing him by name. Not because he’d been in trouble. Not because he’d been exceptionally good. Because he was one of her students. Because she knew them all by name.
My daughter eventually began kindergarten at the same school. Over the years we’ve made friends there. Because it is a Title I school, breakfast and lunch are free to all. The kids don’t have to identify themselves as “free lunch” kids. The food is there for everyone, equally, in this neighborhood where some kids might not otherwise have a decent meal. In summer, the school opens its doors for free lunch so that kids on break can count on at least a few meals a week, no matter the state of their home pantry. When I think about this simple kindness — free food for growing kids, my kids’ friends, kids I know by name — I get choked up.
Last year, the city voted to support the construction of a new building for my kids’ elementary school, which had just turned 100 years old. Over the summer, while the old school was being demolished, the nearby Quaker church hosted the free lunch program. This fall, my son moved on to middle school and my daughter walked into an amazing new building where the gym no longer doubles as a cafeteria.
Construction in our neighborhood has been hopping since the market bounced back, which sparked another nickname for our area: the Infill Neighborhood — one of the last locations in Missoula with lots large enough and houses cheap enough that developers can buy a ‘40s bungalow, bulldoze it and throw up a 16-unit, three-story multiplex in a matter of months.
Our family has grown, too. January marked our fifth anniversary at Headquarters. We now have one dog, two guinea pigs and three fish — all carefully named, though we have moved beyond the names of cars and appliances and pets to learn the names of many of our neighbors and most of the kids who run down the street. Often, my kids run with them. The knowledge of the need in our neighborhood, paired with the growing familiarity, binds me to this place where good things are happening. It’s a place where bad things have happened, too. It’s a neighborhood in a state of transition, on a hinge swinging rapidly from what it was to what it — to what we — will become.
Last week, as I prepared the kids for school on a gray February morning, I heard on the radio that the bones of those children, found in the nearby shed last fall, are likely more than 100 years old. They do not belong to those boys from Michigan.
Does this change anything about the fear that crept up my spine when that story broke? Yes, and no. A hundred years between those bones and my children feels safer, but it’s an illusion. Every victim, every offender, is somebody’s child, and the thought of those children whose names we’ll likely never know is now on that list of things that keep me up at night.
That list has, unfortunately, grown longer in recent months. The tragedies in my neighborhood foreshadowed a winter of small-scale personal difficulties. My mother’s brutal decline continues. I still have a memoir making its way into the world that is very much about my family, which my family will soon read. My basement remains a paused work-in-progress. And, after the car wreck, but before the discovery of the bones, I met someone for whom I felt that rare kind of natural and immediate love I’d felt back in 1992, when I stepped out of the airport and first laid eyes on this valley.
I pushed all my chips in. I gambled on love. Not far into the new year, that connection severed, completely, and without warning. The sudden loss, paired with the other happenings in my life and community, not to mention the long gray of a northern winter, triggered in me a state of shock and confusion.
What does it all mean? I wondered. I have no idea.
The loss also reminded me what fear can do to us. It can make us isolate, clam up, build walls to protect ourselves. It reminded me what hurt can do to us, too. An old and animal part of me wanted to blame, to wallow, to ask why. But I know enough to know that’s no remedy for suffering.
I thought back to the state of my life in 2011, when I returned to Missoula homeless, broke and abandoned. And five years later, I’ve built this quiet, steady writing life with the kids and Headquarters. What I learned from that particular stretch of hardship is that destruction leads to construction. Rebuilding. In these in-between pockets, growth happens.
I decided to handle my hurt by lighting a candle instead of brooding in the darkness. I started reading like mad — to this day, my favorite cure for the blues — and I latched on to this mantra from the writer Elizabeth Gilbert: You have no idea how strong my love is.
The ‘90s punk rocker in me who moved to Missoula in army pants and a flannel shirt would be so embarrassed. She is so embarrassed.
But in this mantra is something wild and powerful that satisfies an instinct injury can trigger: to come out with fists flailing, to strike back at what hurt us. Only it’s a far more radical act, in a way, to throw your heart at the world instead of turning your back on it.
I say those words out loud every morning, in an attempt to throw back into this city the very thing I sensed the first time I visited — the love that runs here clear and unstoppable as the rivers. I whisper them when I’m hiking. I think them when I’m running. Sometimes I say them randomly, while driving across town, to banish self-pity, fear or other hopeless thoughts.
I have no idea who I’m saying this to, exactly. I am saying it to myself, I suppose. I’m saying it to my neighbors, to my kids, to my mother, to Lucy, to my midnight intruder, to everyone grazed by the recent tragedies. I’m saying it to the man who bruised my heart in January and told me recently that he will be moving into the neighborhood.
I’m saying it to you. Let the words be both a balm on your wounds and a call to action. Say them with me: You have no idea how strong my love is. You have no idea.