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GO TO THE CORNER OF BEDFORD AND ROMER. You’ll see the yellow mansion that used to be a girls’ boarding school. Down Romer a bit, on the land that used to be the yellow mansion’s English garden, is the giant new Cape Cod with a ludicrously long front walk at whose end every Halloween a bright plastic pumpkin beckons and, like a ruthless prankster, divulges only after that hope-addled, hundred-yard foray its miserable, miserable contents: pretzel packets. Next to that is the white house, small and perfect, as tall as wide and as long as tall. Further down the block is the brown house, where live an accomplished composer and an esteemed luthier, and where reclines their dog Avey, accomplished in size and esteemed in shagginess, an impossibly benign German shepherd, eyes not quite closed but tempted, sprawled so extensively across her porch it’s clear she believes even houses deserve their own blankets. Further down is the Other Brown House. It’s where a man bled his family to death, one by one, with a knife.


Pleasantville High School and Mount Pleasant Library loom like rival behemoths at the two ends of Romer Avenue.

The high school forces knowledge: mandatory schedules, teachers in dedicated rooms insisting on crisp, formalized interactions, gym class and its arbitrary and ritualized humiliations. The library takes the opposite tack. It offers knowledge gently. It lets itself be wandered. In terms of pedagogical style, the high school and the library are like South Korea and Finland.

Pleasantville Middle School stays off to the side. It sits closer to the high school than the library. There is homework, but not much. There are lockers; nobody locks them. It is neither South Korea nor Finland. It is betweenish. Like Mongolia.

My son Peter was in Mongolia when it happened. No. When it was discovered. He was in health class. A police detective stood at the front of the room. The detective was talking about Adderall, about not taking Adderall, about heroin, about not taking heroin. Adderall forces its high, heroin offers it gently; both are to be avoided. As soon as he’d finished his presentation, during that nervous lull that feels like time for questions, when humans reflexively try to scrub the awkwardness away by turning this way and that and scouring each other with their eyes, this detective got a call. He listened briefly to his phone, hung up, grabbed the binder he’d set down on a desk, the hat he’d set down on the binder, whispered an apology to the teacher, and sprinted out of there. Peter recalls that the teacher conducted herself with such extreme calm it was the opposite of reassuring. It looked like she was pretending to be calm and thus, of course, confirming there was cause not to be. In fact, she didn’t know much. Nobody except the police knew much. Yet.

Twenty minutes later, at the end of the school day, my son walked home. He exited the middle school’s front doors, turned right, and wended with the sidewalk that edged the parking lot until he hit Romer.

He didn’t hit Romer. Romer hit him. As soon as he turned that corner: Five Pleasantville police cruisers. Four Westchester County police cruisers. A truck-sized mobile evidence-collection unit. Police streaming in and out of the second house from the corner. The Other Brown House.

Peter slowed as he walked past the Other Brown House. The first thing he saw was a uniformed police officer, standing. The second thing was an elderly couple, sitting. I know these details because I told Peter to tell me everything. The officer, who stood by the front door, was visible directly above the heads of the couple. They all faced the same direction, like people posing for a studio photograph.

The couple, a little old man and a little old woman, sat on the porch steps. Both wore hats and coats in the hoary black of pilled and linted winter. Peter immediately understood they were grandparents who belonged to the family inside. He had never seen them before. He had never met any member of the family before. Nonetheless, he had no doubt these were the grandparents. They sat as if they had been waiting for a ride and then lost hope of it ever arriving. The grandfather sat dazed. The grandmother sat looking at things, giving each one an earnest chance, a good long look, then turning slightly and looking at something else, giving everything around her a turn. The grandfather had one foot on a lower step, like you do when you talk baseball or trade bad-weather camping stories. The grandmother had both feet on the same step, her arms bent but wrists facing up, like nothing was fixed, all was contingent, things could not be assumed or even understood, even the air could not be taken for granted. When Peter told me about the grandparents, I told him he’d remember them for the rest of his life.

But it’s me who’s haunted by them, and I never saw them. I’m also haunted by what I have no way of knowing and am absolutely sure of: The grandparents getting home at the end of that day. The grandparents shrugging out of their coats, absently doffing their hats, moving so slowly because there was no point beyond it.


I saw my daughter that night when I picked her up from basketball practice. I let her sit in the front seat. It was the first time she’d ever sat in a vehicle’s front seat. It was the kind of milestone I write down in a journal that is in fact a Microsoft Word document titled “Peter and Claire Stories.” Milestones are a way of elevating moments into pure abstraction, where the muck of everyday life can’t reach them. This particular milestone: not so much.

I let Claire sit in the front seat, I realize now, because part of my brain was planning to tell her, and did. I told her I wanted her to know because all the kids would be talking about it the next day. I talked about mental illness, and how people treat it like a shameful thing rather than a disease, and how even I have to remind myself that it should not be a secret.

“Why did you want to tell me?” she asked. She forgot the part where I told her why.

“Because all the kids will be talking about it tomorrow.”

She asked this with such alarm, with such suspicion.

Never—not during Lamaze classes at Phelps Memorial, not during parent-teacher conferences at Bedford Road School, not during the hundreds of Saturday cookouts and Sunday dinners that masqueraded as noisy leisure but in fact served evolution as species-perpetuating opportunities for knowledge transfers regarding the rearing and withstanding of children—did anyone prepare me for the possibility that my daughter might think, even fleetingly, that I could kill her and her mother and her brother and then myself.


One day after—the next night, at dinner—I asked Claire if any of the kids talked about the murder-suicide. This is what I called it, with crisp and headlong forthrightness. I wanted to avoid the pins-and-needles reticence of parents. We hear so often about how not talking about things sometimes causes children to fixate all the more. But I probably overdid it. I came at it loud and brute, in the style of a person standing next to a bingo drum.

Apparently Claire spent the whole day noticing how the other kids were sidling up to each other, cautiously observing each other, each alert to the possibility that the other had not been told, anxious not to discuss something the other’s parents had not seen fit to. Over and over Claire heard them ask each other, with eerie consistency: “Do you know what happened?” Invariably the answer was either “Yeah” or “What do you mean?” Claire reported that on hearing “What do you mean?” the approacher would simply drop their eyes and sidle off without ceremony or explanation.

Claire was approached three times and each time said, “Yeah.”

Then she heard: “Do you know everything that happened?”

“Yeah,” she said three times.


“A father killed his wife and two children with a knife. Then he killed himself with a knife.”

Three times Claire heard: “That’s not what happened.”
Three times Claire heard a different story.

“Corinne said only a boy died, and they’re still looking for the person.”
“How did she say the boy died?” I asked.
“Of a heart attack.”
“If he died of a heart attack, who’s the person they’re looking for?”
“I don’t know.”

“Sabrina said a boy got lost in the woods and they had to send a helicopter.”
“Did they find him?”
“No. He died.”
“In the woods?”
“Yeah. Or the helicopter.”

“Bonnie said the boy died but from a gun.”
“Someone shot him?”
“Yeah. But with a gun, not a knife.”
“And who shot him with not a knife?”
“Either his dad or not his dad.”

Thus from my nine-year-old daughter I learned two laws of human society. First, most parents will lie to their children rather than impart tragic knowledge. Second, the death of boys—from guns, say, or helicopters—is not tragic knowledge. It is a kind of safe misfortune: sad enough to give pause, but—perhaps because boys and their constant mouths and grimy necks are vexing and, you know, gross—apparently short of catastrophe.

The calamity was four deaths. The atrocity was three murders.

The horror, though, was the last two. What the police established were the last two.

You cannot ask it.

What did the children see?

You cannot leave it unasked.

What did the children think they were seeing?

Two days after, I saw a reporter in front of a tripod camera. Not in front of the house, not across or down the street from the house. The reporter had set up in front of the massive and official-looking sign in front of the grade school that bears the name in machine-engraved concrete.

Who the fuck? is what I thought as I drove past. I was confident and replete in this atavism welling in me and totally surprised by it. My limbic underbrain kept me from seeing a reporter reporting on reportable events. It instead saw exploitation, mockery, and wildly broad and unfair condemnation, signaling the forebrain to squirt out still more suspicion and tribalism. I did not need to hear the reportage because I was content to imagine it.

Thank you, Lisa. I’m not even close to being close to the scene here at Bedford Road School. And it’s obvious even from my thoroughly irrelevant location: this little town is reeling. But is it reeling from the tragedy? Or is it reeling from the spotlight, the scrutiny, from being finally found out? The school that you see over my stiff, performative shoulder shapes Pleasantville’s newest generation. Grades kindergarten through four. Who are the barbarians that run this little trap of a town, purporting to nurture and educate its families only to drive them to the slaughter? Or is this where the real education starts, with the five-year-olds schooled in minor malice and ages six through nine trained in advanced mayhem? It is an elegant question, and an urgent one, as my exaggerated, hyper-anglicized vowels and singsong inflection manage to telegraph with fraught excess. This is Leopard Langford, reporting from nowhere near the thing reported, Channel Forty-Seven News.

A couple of blocks after I passed the reporter, I felt bad. Both for thinking unfair things about her and because of her sad little tripod camera. She and the camera were all by themselves. Her story did not rate a cameraperson. Or, maybe worse, Channel Forty-Seven could not afford a cameraperson. Leopard had to carry the equipment herself, set it up and adjust it herself, run three or four takes herself. And all the while she had to keep an eye out for torches and pitchforks.


Four days after, they released the names of the family and reported details of their background. The father had worked at the Rockefeller Center offices of a Japanese financial firm. In the same Rockefeller Center building I work in.

The first names of the children made it worse. Each name ran three syllables long. Dignified, elegant. They were names for adults that you give children in trust that after not too long they’ll be full grown. Those names wanted too much. Those names were greedy. Those names tempted fate.

Come to think of it, any names would have made it worse. One-syllable throwaway infantilizing names: Jane, Tim. How is that better? The fact these children were still childlike. How would that make it better?


Ten days after, on the Sunday ten days before Christmas, at seven at night, each of the village’s houses of worship—Catholic, Episcopal, Jewish, Methodist, Presbyterian—tolled its bells and, from seven to eight, hosted its share of a village-wide “mutual vigil.” I think they meant a joint vigil. A mutual vigil, presumably, is where participants keep each other awake all night. The only true mutual vigil is a third-grade sleepover, where it is agreed implicitly that everyone will eat Sour Dots for hours and keep each other giggling and pee-soaked till dawn.

I went to Saint John’s Episcopal. At seven, the church’s bells sounded for several minutes. Single tolls, some double tolls, also triple tolls. I counted them and I lost count. I tried to discern a pattern and failed. Some tolls sounded louder, some softer, some stayed the same for long enough to make me feel presumptuous for expecting variance. I was reminded of the flash-bang devices set off by FBI arrest teams before entering structures to apprehend those inside. Their purpose is to disorient so that what follows can proceed without injury or incident.

The hymn board said Third Sunday of Advent. Twenty sat in pews and another twenty filtered in. Up front waited a three-member cast: rector, deacon, and pianist.

The rector stood and said, “I’d like to tell you about the structure of the service we’ll have tonight. There will be readings and singing and quiet music and silence. Then readings and singing and quiet music and silence. And that’s how it’ll go.”

She read a letter from the extended family, the surviving relatives, addressed to those in Pleasantville who knew the departed. The letter began, “There are no words to describe how painful and difficult the experience of the last week has been.” She read a prayer for the souls of A and T, the two children who were murdered.

We kept silence. Our silence was defied by a washing machine just inside or just beyond the rear right corner of the church. It made a washer’s tripartite noise: boom, squeeeeak, substrate churn finally allowed its intermittent solo. The triplet rhythm smacked of speed and urgency—the opposite of quiet contemplation.

The rector read a prayer for D, the mother and wife who was slaughtered.

The pianist played “Be Thou My Vision.” Curiously. He improvised harmonies constantly and regularly added ornaments and elaborations, but his rhythm kept rigid and relentless. It was as if a drummer had been placed behind a piano and suddenly granted piano-playing powers. He was a man used to having a mass of people singing with him and was loathe—terrified, apparently—to cause further sorrow by departing the least bit from the established rhythm.

Finally the rector read a prayer for D, A, T, and T. The father. She paused before his name, speaking it with her mouth all vinegared and warped, like it wounded her to include him but she really didn’t have a choice. Mercy and love and like that.

Among the last to enter the church were a family of four. The two kids, about the same age, were very young for an event like this—at most six or seven. Both had big curly hair. As the service wound forward, they made noise and stood and waved their arms and even laughed. Big curly hair makes laughter louder. It acts like the emanata lines in comic strips. The father apparently agreed, because he left with one of the kids. The mother toughed it out, but after a couple more minutes of laughter from the other kid—and remonstration each time she tried to quiet him—she absconded with this child too.

Normally, noisy children are a welcome thing at funerals. They remind those present that things must go on, if not for themselves, then at least for the children. But when you’re mourning slaughtered children, the laughter of live ones doesn’t sound like a healthy refocus. It sounds like what might have been and never will be.


They say Christmas celebrations have nothing to do with religion. They predate the birth of Christ. They are pagan observances, arising from a primitive, hard-wired impulse to cheer ourselves up against the cold and the dark.

A December tragedy rips away the scrim. An abomination in December puts the lie to every berried wreath and winking light.


I couldn’t get over those names. Three syllables. As if to represent their parents’ outsized hopes for them.

Or to impart additional dignity upon the moment of birth in the exceedingly unlikely but hypothetically possible, technically conceivable event of premature death, before they’ve had a chance to accomplish things.


At one point the rector said, “Enough silence. We need to sing. There’s only so much silence that one who isn’t God can take.” She said something else, and then “Amazing Grace,” and then where it was in the hymnal.

I was reminded of two things as we sang the hymn. How much I hate “Amazing Grace,” because the music sucks and the lyrics mostly suck. And how deeply I love the words at its very heart—in the third of the song’s five stanzas, in the third of that stanza’s four lines. The words are: “He will my shield and portion be.” I’ve loved that line for most of my life. There are many reasons. “Shield” and “portion” are such different sounds, one abrupt and coarse and Anglo-Saxon, the other sustained and abstract and Latinate. The image is striking and ridiculous too, God feeding you with one hand while holding over the both of you a massive shield, rocked and blasted ceaselessly by unseen enemies, and all the while holding it with that mix of determination and affected ease that says, Don’t worry about it, this shield isn’t going anywhere, I don’t even know why you’re worrying about it.

Also it reminds me of a particular morning, years ago. I came down to breakfast and Peter looked up from his plate and exclaimed, as excited as could be, “Good big Daddy!” It’s still the best thing I’ve ever been called.

Great and good. Shield and portion. There is nothing finer than power and virtue compounded.


I’m sitting on my porch. Writing. I try not to think of that other porch, the one with two people sitting, small and frail and gray-black, not knowing what to do. Not wanting, for the futility, even to wish things were different.


Three days after, Claire and I go to her piano teacher’s house. Louise will know what happened. Louise knows everybody and everything in Pleasantville. Not in a busybody way. She’s a freaking Guggenheim fellow in musical composition. She’s got that mix of warm and forward and incisive that powers a formidable perception, then the cognitive horsepower to process it all. If an AI engine had to build a sub-engine for truth-finding, it would try to build her.

Also: Louise’s house is on Romer. On the same side of the street as where it happened. Four houses down.

But Claire and I get there and find out nothing. Sprawled proprietarily across the front porch, as always, is Avey. Louise’s massive German shepherd is even more famous in town than Louise. The children on their ceaseless pilgrimage to the middle and high schools stop and make mini-pilgrimages to Louise’s front porch to pet and coo at Avey, who reacts the same way the earth’s orbit reacts when you toss a pebble on the ground. Louise has fitted Avey, who’s spent several years getting old and several more being old, with a weird walk-assistance harness. Inside the house is Polly, an abused rescue dog who starts and shakes at the sound of any man’s voice. Louise has Polly because Louise’s mother is in the hospital after a stroke. I don’t want to talk about the murder-suicide, I don’t even want to think about the murder-suicide, after Louise shows us a video of her mother playing the piano. Louise’s mother was a piano teacher herself. And when she fell and called Louise, and after Louise arrived at her house and got her things together, and before she took her to the hospital, her mother asked if she could just play the piano for a few minutes before they left. The video is of her mother playing and complaining of limited motion in her left shoulder and playing. Louise starts to cry a little. I’ve never seen her cry. She is so strong and level-headed and New Englandy that way. How do you talk about what’s past when there’s such potent, fragrant evidence of what’s next?



George Choundas is a Cuban and Greek American and former FBI agent with work in over seventy-five publications and two award-winning collections: stories in The Making Sense of Things (FC2) and essays in Until All You See Is Sky (EastOver).



Photo by Jason Krieger on Unsplash

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