Memories of Murder in my Life

Illustration from Razorcake #37 by Brad Beshaw

Illustration from Razorcake #37 by Brad Beshaw

My brother had the big idea to make and sell “Free Jones Hand” t-shirts. Jones Hand was a guy I went to high school with. He sat behind me in an advanced algebra class. We weren’t friends, exactly, but we talked a lot. He signed me yearbook. “To a pal. Keep in touch,” he wrote. I think I only asked him to sign it because he asked me to sign his, and I didn’t want to seem like a dick. I remember thinking that Jones was a good enough guy, even if he did reek of booze most mornings.

A few years later, Jones had a psychotic break and attacked his Narcotics Anonymous sponsor with a hatchet. Jones cracked the poor guy’s head open.

When the news hit my hometown, most people acted stunned. I told them, “I blame the parents. Of course your kid’s gonna be a drug addict if you give him ‘Jones’ for a first name.” I rarely got a laugh when I said that.

My sister was shaken up by it all. She was friends with Charles Hand, Jones’s younger brother. Charles was rightfully torn up about all this. In fact, no one thought my brother’s idea about a “Free Jones Hand” t-shirt was funny. People responded to him with that long, slow, scolding “dude.” As in, “Duuuude. Not funny.”

I thought it was funny. I wanted one of those t-shirts.

I still kinda want one.


I don’t even remember Ramon’s real name. He’d been in a high school Spanish class with my brother. Ramon was his Spanish class name. He was a suburban White kid like the rest of us. He worked at the Cinnabun in the mall. In those days, it wasn’t uncommon for my brother, my friends, and me to get a big soda at the mall, spike it with whiskey, and get drunk on the mall benches. This led to a lot of heckling. Ramon was often on the receiving end of this heckling. Nothing malicious. Just longwinded hoots of “Ramooooon” when he walked by.

Ramon was a tall, fat, sad guy. He’d shake off the heckles with a wave of his hand.

Our ability to heckle Ramon ended when Ramon killed a hooker under the 520 bridge. A buddy of his helped Ramon dispose of the hooker’s body. They both got caught.


Wendy was part of the whole crew I ran with back then. She was a sweet girl. There’s no other way to put it. She dated my brother for a while. Even my brother would say, “She’s too nice of a girl to date a guy like me.” They broke up after a couple of months. I don’t remember why. It wasn’t hostile or anything. Everyone remained friends. She was still part of the crew.

Wendy had a thing about birthdays. She always remembered people’s birthdays. On my twenty-third birthday, everyone forgot. My parents forgot to call. I worked all day with my brother. He forgot. No one at work remembered. My roommates didn’t remember. That night, we all went out drinking. Not to celebrate my birthday. Just because we drank every night. I ran into Wendy that night. She said, “Happy birthday.” She bought me a beer.

When Brian Zettle turned twenty-one, we all went out to celebrate. Since he actually didn’t turn twenty-one until midnight, we started the night at the restaurant where Wendy worked. Wendy brought us our first pitcher of beer and said to Brian, “You turn twenty-one tomorrow, don’t you?” Brian nodded. Wendy said, “Happy birthday.” She served us several pitchers before the ten o’clock closing time.

We all ended up at Spanky’s Pub. Wendy included. I drank a lot. Threw darts. Talked smack. Played songs on the jukebox. We all did. At midnight, Brian wanted to get his first legal drink at the strip club around the corner. I remember inviting Wendy to go with us, just to be polite. Very politely, Wendy said, “No thanks.” She was hanging out with a dude. For the life of me, I can’t remember what he looked like. Wendy introduced me to him. I shook his hand.

Later that night, after the rest of us had closed the strip club and stumbled drunkenly home, Wendy’s dude took the same hand that he’d used to shake my hand, wrapped it around Wendy’s neck, and strangled her.

Now, I think about Wendy every time I have a birthday.


Bart Staeger was one of my brother’s roommates in college. He got in a fight with a guy named Steve Austin—I’m not kidding about the name; it’s real—outside a bar in Orlando. Steve Austin punched Bart. Bart kicked Steve. Steve fell on the curb, cut open his head, and, because he was a hemophiliac, he bled to death. Orlando doctors did not have the technology. They could not rebuild him.

Bart’s one kick was renamed manslaughter and he was sentenced to five years in a maximum security prison. I heard he made parole in his third year.


John Cox trained me when I started at the Groundhog Tavern. He showed me around a lot during my first days in Atlanta. He introduced me to a couple of other servers who would become lifelong friends of mine.

Back in those days, he dated this beautiful girl, Nikki. Nikki was pregnant with John’s baby. They were keeping the baby and would get married one day. In the meantime, John spent a good bit of time cheating on Nikki. Sometimes, he’d take his dates to the Groundhog. For some reason, he always sat in my section on these dates. I felt a little like I was cheating on Nikki when I served them.

I worked with John for a long time. I quit the Groundhog, moved to Arizona, moved back to Atlanta, worked with John again at the Groundhog. By this time, he was tending bar there. I never really drank at John’s bar, but a lot of hours of my life have been spent drinking with John.

The last time I saw him, a few years later, John had this huge abscessed tooth. It looked like he was smuggling a tangerine in his cheek. We played darts, did some shots, talked about old times. I’d like to say it was good to see John that night. Usually, it was good to see John. On this night, it wasn’t. John was all coked out and aggressive. I even let him win a game of darts, just to calm him down a bit.

I worried a little about Nikki and John’s five-year-old daughter.

At the end of the night, I told John, “Man, you gotta take care of that tooth. If that shit bursts inside your mouth and you swallow the poison, it’s gonna kill you.”

I don’t know if that’s true about an abscessed tooth. I wasn’t talking about the tooth, anyway.

A couple of years later, back in Atlanta, hanging out with one of those lifelong friends John had introduced me to, talking about all the old crew, I asked her about John Cox. Her eyes got big. “You haven’t heard?” she said. I shook my head. “Nikki was cheating on him and he couldn’t take it. He came home one night, shot her and shot himself.”

I couldn’t believe it. “They’re both dead?”

“No. He killed Nikki, but when he shot himself, it didn’t kill him. He’s paralyzed.”

“So he’s in prison now? Paralyzed?”

My friend nodded, big-eyed and sad.

“And the little girl?”

“Living with Nikki’s mom.”


Tom Schwering was a shop teacher at my high school. One summer, I worked on a carpentry crew with him. The guy was kind of a hero to me. He was always giving me advice about dating girls, and the thing was, his advice actually worked. The year after I graduated high school, Schwering got shot in a botched coke deal. He survived. He lost his job at the high school, though, and moved back to his hometown in upstate New York. Rumor has it that he got shot in another coke deal in New York, and that time, he didn’t survive.


And so on.


I was tending bar at the Phoenix Brew Pub one night. At closing time, only three people sat at the bar: my manager, Glenn the brewer, and a guy named Kevin, who used to be my manager at the Groundhog. Since Glenn was part owner and everyone else outranked me, I let them help themselves to drinks while I did all the work of closing down. I hosed down the floor, dragged the bar mats into the kitchen, emptied the trash, wiped the bottles and the bar, counted out the bank and the tips, and everything else. Glenn, Kevin, and my manager kept drinking and chatting through it all. When I was done, I poured myself a beer and suggested darts.

We played several games, all with little wagers. Kevin won the majority of games and I won everything he didn’t. Glenn lost them all.

I should have noticed that Glenn was a sore loser. I should not have started teasing Glenn about the little man purse that he always carried around. And I absolutely should not have let the manager pull the bottle of Jagermeister out of the cooler.

Two shots of Jager, one more game of darts that I won and Glenn lost, and five or six more man purse jokes later, Glenn showed me what he carried in his man purse: a .45 millimeter pistol. A Glock. Glenn showed it to my by pointing it at my head. “Do you know what this is?” he asked.

“Put the fucking gun down, Glenn,” I said.

Glenn tried to make some kind of point. I have no idea what that point was. I didn’t even listen. I thought about all the lines of coke that Glenn and Kevin had inhaled off my freshly-wiped bar. I remembered someone telling me that Glocks don’t have a safety. I answered everything Glenn said by saying, “Put the fucking gun down, Glenn.” My manager and Kevin joined me in the chorus. Glenn kept talking. I kept looking down the barrel. I thought about Wendy and Ramon and Bart and Schwering and Jones Hand. I didn’t think about John Cox and Nikki because they were both still alive and walking at this point. Had they not been, I may have thought about them, too. Mostly, I thought about me and said, “Put the fucking gun down, Glenn.”

Finally, he put the fucking gun down.

I didn’t finish my beer or say a word or even pick up my jacket off the bar stool. I walked straight out the door.

Author’s note: This is the fourth chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote.  It originally ran in Razorcake #37.  For more information about the collection, read this post.

Celebrate the Ugly Things

Illustration from Razorcake #66 by Brad Beshaw

Illustration from Razorcake #66 by Brad Beshaw

They were the kind of coworkers who become funny in retrospect. Time has a way of turning tragedy into comedy. Though there was nothing tragic here. No one’s greatest virtue led to his downfall. It was more quiet than that, somewhere between time turning a pain in the ass into a modest chuckle and something more.

By the end of the summer, only three of us were left on the crew: Tweaker Bob, Aaron, and me. Tweaker Bob was the lead carpenter. In theory, we were supposed to do what he said, but he gave no instructions. He spent most of the day in the cab of his truck, flipping through three identical sets of blueprints for three identical tract houses in a row, all of which he was supposed to be working on. Now and then, a wave of inspiration would crash over Tweaker Bob and he’d jump out of his truck. I’m not embellishing here. He’d literally set his work boots onto the running board of his old Ford and launch himself out of the truck. He’d run to the bed, grab a saw and an extension chord, run to one of the houses, work furiously for ten or fifteen minutes, stop as suddenly as he started, and run back to his truck. He’d spend the next few hours there, studying the blueprints.

That wasn’t all Tweaker Bob did. Sometimes, he got in fights with total strangers in the Circle K parking lot. To hear Tweaker Bob tell it, the fight was always the stranger’s fault. It was always unavoidable. I didn’t point out to Tweaker Bob that fights in Circle K parking lots are almost always avoidable. In fact, most people avoid them for their entire lives. I didn’t tell Tweaker Bob what else I knew: if you encounter three assholes in a day, they’re probably not the assholes.

As you may have guessed, Tweaker Bob was not his birth name. The guy was six foot tall, weighed around 135 pounds, and had a teenager’s acne on his forty-year-old face. His teeth were beginning to rot from the outside in. He stayed awake for days at a time, then sometimes passed out in the cab of his truck in front of the job.

Bossman Bob was Tweaker Bob’s brother-in-law. He was somehow convinced that Tweaker Bob was not on crystal meth.


Seventeen years later, these guys are back on my mind. I’m teaching a British Lit class. The assigned reading for today includes a Wikipedia page on John Milton. We’re discussing the benefits and shortcomings of Wikipedia. None of this has anything to do with Tweaker Bob and Aaron. Their lives don’t translate into encyclopedic knowledge.

One of my students, whose name is also Aaron, asks, “Did you used to be a carpenter?”

This may seem like a non sequitur, but I know exactly what has happened. Someone pointed out to him that there is a Wikipedia page about me. He’s switched over from Milton to Carswell, and now he’s checking to see how valid the information is. Whenever students ask me about being a carpenter or ask me how to pronounce my wife’s name, I know they’ve looked me up on Wikipedia. It’s not really a problem. I’m not even creeped out when, before I can answer, six or seven other students say variations of, “Yes. Didn’t you know that?” despite the fact that I have told no one in this class that I used to be a carpenter. This has happened before. I calmly redirect the class back to Milton’s role in the English Civil War. For the third time that class period, I stifle the urge to make a joke about Milton’s official title under Cromwell: Secretary of Foreign Tongues.

A student named Aaron asking me about being a carpenter is not what caused Tweaker Bob and the other Aaron to rise to the surface of my thoughts. The nine dollars I found in the pocket of my jeans this morning did.


Now, the carpenter I worked with wasn’t really named Aaron. I changed his name for this story. Not to protect the carpenter Aaron. I’m not protecting anyone in the past here. Tweaker Bob’s name was really Bob and his brother-in-law, who was also our boss, was also named Bob. I’m really named Carswell. But I changed Aaron’s name because I didn’t want to call out my student, who really does share a name with my old coworker. So I thought about an equally white, middle-class-sounding name that would, hopefully, give you a sense of the ease and privilege the carpenter Aaron grew up in: that two story mini-mansion in east Flagstaff with multiple motorcycles in the garage and three expensive cars in the driveway, plus Aaron’s top-of-the-line Chevy Silverado 4X4. This work was a summer job for Aaron, something that his parents made him get to keep busy between semesters at Coconino Community College.

In some ways, Aaron was worse than Tweaker Bob. Violent and erratic as Tweaker Bob was, he usually stayed in his truck. The work he did when he left it was punch-list stuff, and he did a good job in his fifteen-minute flurries of activity. So he wasn’t helpful, but he wasn’t a problem. Aaron was a problem. Nearly everything he built had to be torn down and rebuilt correctly. Nearly ever cut he made was too short, and there’s no way to cut a board longer. I had to find ways to keep Aaron busy with jobs even he couldn’t fuck up. This was tough.

My favorite thing about Aaron: his tattoos. He’d made his own tattoo gun and started practicing on himself. He drew a Yosemite Sam on his left pectoral. The left half of Sam’s body was a full inch longer than the right half. You could only tell it was Yosemite Sam after Aaron told you so. He’d also made three attempts at the Tasmanian Devil. After drawing three blurred triangles—all of which Aaron claimed were the Tasmanian Devil’s tornado legs—Aaron gave up because it hurt too much.


Even though I’ve now moved comfortably into middle-class life, even though I have a job with a salary and a pension, even though I live in an actual house now with my own actual washing machine and dryer, even though I could easily afford to buy several pairs of jeans, I still have only three pairs and I still wear them six or seven times between washings. That nine dollars—a five and four ones—lingers in my right front pocket. I walk through the halls of the university where I work, hands in pockets, feeling the soft bills rubbing gently against my fingertips.


Like I said, everyone else on the crew had quit but Aaron, Tweaker Bob, and me. Aaron wouldn’t quit because he didn’t know enough to know things were fucked. There wasn’t a question of Tweaker Bob quitting. He was the reason the rest of the crew fled, and he couldn’t flee from himself. I needed one more week. After one more week, I’d have enough money to float by until the next semester started. Once that happened, I could go back to being a graduate assistant—the lowest form of teacher in a university, but an easier job than building tract houses for Bossman Bob and his tweaker brother-in-law. Only thing was, we were way behind schedule on these three tract houses. Someone had to get fired. I had a feeling it was gonna be me.

Here was Bossman Bob’s problem with me: I was a college boy. Worse than that, a graduate student. At least Aaron had the decency to be a community college student, and one who was years into working on a degree that he’d obviously never get. But I was taking post-graduate classes and teaching undergraduate ones. How could I be a carpenter, too?

As far as Bossman Bob was concerned, I couldn’t. Everything had to be my fault.

Lunch time that Friday came and went, and it was still just me, Aaron, and Tweaker Bob on the job. Aaron had smoked a little weed during lunch. When the break ended, he joined Tweaker Bob in the cab of the truck. I strapped on my tool belt and got to work. I’d stacked plywood and two-by-sixes against the garage eave. I brought my saw up to the half-finished roof and built the valley connecting the roof to the garage. I made all my own cuts while standing between the trusses. It was a precarious way of working and things moved slowly by necessity, but I liked having the time to work alone. I was in my early twenties then and had already spent nearly a decade working construction during summers and school breaks and even for a couple of years after getting my bachelor’s degree. Framing houses was comfortable for me, fulfilling.

The wind howled across the northern Arizona prairie. I kept one eye on the road to the west. As long as Bossman Bob’s truck didn’t come rolling up this way, I’d get my week. If I could just make it to two o’clock, Tweaker Bob would fold up the blueprints, holler out that he was going to pick up our paychecks, and split. I’d be safe.

Only Bossman Bob did show up. He brought his whole other crew with him. They spread out across the three houses, seven strong, working to finish these suckers off.

Aaron and Tweaker Bob teamed up on some living room walls. They were suddenly a tornado of activity. Bossman Bob sent two carpenters up to finish my work in the valley. He had me to build interior walls. All simple and easy. Everyone worked in teams of two but me. No one said anything to me. I could feel the target on my forehead. I kept an eye out for daylight. If we could just stretch this sucker to sunset. Every extra hour I could clock in before that bomb dropped would mean another nine dollars of groceries to get me through the summer’s end.

Saws whirred and hammers pounded until seven-thirty that evening. The houses weren’t finished by then, but they were close. While everyone else rolled up extension cords and packed away tools, Bossman Bob said to me, “We have to talk.”

“What’s up?” I asked, though I knew.

“Well.” Bossman Bob looked west across the prairie at the fading evening sun. “I’m gonna have to let you go.” He started to explain why, but I didn’t stick around to listen. No point in that.


Now, I can see why it’s tough for someone to imagine I was a carpenter once. When I was young and tan and blond and carrying around over two hundred pounds of muscle from a heavy-lifting job and fat from lunches of Circle K hotdogs, it was easy to tell what I did for a living. Now, I’ve dropped at least thirty of those extra pounds. I iron my work shirts. I eat a lot of vegetables. Unless you catch a glimpse of the scars on the backs of my hands or the sunspots lingering on my skin, it’s hard to tell I was anything but a guy who got paid to talk about John Milton’s role in the English Civil War.


A week after getting fired, I went back to the jobsite to get my final paycheck. Bossman Bob met me at his truck and gave me the check. It was nine dollars short. I needed that nine dollars. I had two weeks left before the start of classes, three weeks before my first grad assistant pay came in, and only about thirty-five dollars left over. Rent and bills were paid. I could get by. Money had been this tight before. I knew how to eat on twelve bucks a week. Still, nine dollars meant something.

In the week that I’d been gone, Tweaker Bob and Aaron had done no work. Bossman Bob was starting to see his mistake in firing me—the last guy who was actually working on the crew. He wanted me to explain the situation. I said, “This check is nine dollars short.” Bossman Bob asked more questions. I tapped his checkbook. “Nine dollars.”

Bob wrote the check, but he wouldn’t stop grilling me. I wasn’t about to say anything to get Tweaker Bob and Aaron fired. I had nothing against them. They weren’t to blame. I was. I could’ve defended myself before I got canned. I could’ve called Bossman Bob up weeks earlier and explained the situation and tried to get on a different crew or something. I could’ve done more than just working silently and waiting for the axe to fall. So I didn’t blame anyone but myself. I made my mistakes and took the consequences and that was that, as far as I was concerned.

But I needed that nine-dollar check. It was under Bossman Bob’s hand and he wasn’t giving it up. Finally, I feinted a punch toward Bossman Bob. I had no intention of hitting him. I just didn’t know what else to do. Bob flinched, lifting his hand off the check. I grabbed it and headed toward my truck.

I was in the driver’s seat with the engine running before Bossman Bob recovered and started yelling at me. Part of me wanted to turn off the ignition, to get out and do what every working class man in America dreams of: fight my boss. The rest of me knew, though, that I needed to get to the bank before he changed his mind about these checks.


Back here in the present tense, I know I can keep that nine dollars in my jeans indefinitely. Maybe not the same nine dollars in the same pair of jeans, but a never-ending nine dollars forever in excess of anything I need. It can serve as a talisman against a time when, if I’d found an extra nine dollars in my jeans, I’d have to spend it. If not on food or some other necessity, I’d have buy beer or weed or something to help me escape the world where nine dollars meant so much to me.

Now, that money can be a gift to the young carpenter living inside me. Others may need Wikipedia to see him. I always know he’s there.

Author’s note: This is the third chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote.  It originally ran in Razorcake #66.  For more information about the collection, read this post.