Midwestern Gothic by Barrett Swanson, The Believer Magazine, Feb/Mar 2018

So, not a short story, but a creative nonfiction essay that is thoughtful, disturbing, and illuminating all at once.

The author, Swanson, was in college when he friend, who went to a different college, was found dead in a river. The official reports were of an accidental drowning, but Swanson couldn’t help but wonder if something else might have happened. While he suppressed the conspiracy theory for the well being of his friend’s family, and for his own sanity, years later the smiley face murders theory comes to his knowledge.

The theory, or conspiracy theory depending on who you ask, posits a killer or network of killers across the United States that targets athletic, popular, and prominently (though not exclusively) white male college students. The symbol of the smiley face was found near or at least some hundreds of yards from many of the bodies found over the years, which some say proves a link. Swanson, for some years, believed–or at least entertained the idea concerning his friend–whose death was one of the possible smile face murders, as a spray painted smiley face was found near a bridge not extraordinarily far from where Swanson’s friend was found.

Swanson uses his friend’s death, in this piece, as a launch pad for a variety of issues, not least of which is the over-consumption of alcohol on, or near, college campuses–but also the willingness of Midwesterners to believe in conspiracy theories whether they are political, social, extraterrestrial, etc. But Swanson reels himself back from what could have been a dive into unsubstantiated flat earth theories with some cold facts near the end of the piece.

“Roughly 3,800 people drown each year in the US, and seventeen-to-twenty-four-years-olds constitute the most common age group, after unobserved children.

“Drowning on a weekend is 48 percent more likely than drowning during the workweek. Almost all the men [as well as Swanson’s friend] thought to be murdered by the Smiley Face Killers were found on a Saturday or Sunday.”

This piece is perhaps less about conspiracy theories and more about the willingness of white males in the U.S. to believe they are the target of some nefarious plot. It’s a story and account I’m thankful to Barrett Swanson for sharing and teaches readers about the struggles our country is going through right now.

4/23/15 Useless Bay

Cold feet over rough stones. The saddest part was that he’d never learned to swim. Across the the bay he could see little door lights or maybe bright shining through the kitchen windows of the houses–all homely, warm and welcoming–sparkle like unnatural candles.

They’d thrown him in as a joke but he was so far away he couldn’t see which doc he’d come from. So late now most everybody had gone to bed. Those lights were the ones people left on to keep the burglars away even though there weren’t many burglars round those parts. Still a completely dark house, he reasoned, was creepy even while you slept.

His bare feet probed the nighttime ground for barnacles rocks. Those things could cut you up real good if you weren’t careful–he’d seen it before. Lucky low tide was so low in the bay–that’s why it was called Useless. Couldn’t get a ship in here unless you’d want to do some serious digging. Excavation of the bay–now that would be a job. Luckily it wasn’t or he would have drowned.

The guys who threw them in were old high school pals. Real jokers, really. Always up for some beers and a laugh, but it wasn’t really funny anymore. Third year of college and when he came back to visit them they still called him Po’Boy Plunger because when he’d eaten a bunch of oyster at the yearly oyster celebration when he’d been 16, he’d thrown up so much it’d clogged one of the public toilets so horribly it had overflown and driven everyone else out of the mens side of the bathroom. He’d hadn’t been allergic to shellfish until that moment, he realized.

Now he was sopping wet on this spring day and dearly wishing he’d taken his mother up to go to the Snake River with her for spring break instead of seeing these guys. If he’d have done that he wouldn’t smell like salt and seaweed and whatever else was going on down below his feet–decaying fish, crabs, and bird shit, probably.

The fact that none of the guys even tried to help him out of the water, tried to figure where he’d gone or if he was already seemed strange to Paul. They knew he couldn’t swim. Knew the bay would be cold and that when they’d thrown him in it would an act of cruelty. But they probably knew it was a load tide to, and the splash and initial coldness wouldn’t be a big deal as long as he warmed up afterward. But when he hadn’t come back had any of them worried? Wondered. Paul’s phone was sitting on the table where they’d been playing poker. His extra cards stashed neatly between the leaves. Unless they took the table apart they’d never know why he was winning.

It’d always been like. They were all too stupid to know he was just stashing cards up his sleeve or between table leaves, or under his own ass. Then he’d scratch it and trade up cards for a stronger hand.

4/6/15 What Would You Like to Text?

It had been years since Bellingham had been her home. Years since she’d spent any time at all. But the skeezy prostitute motel was still there and even though it was February there were still some of the homeless sitting about on the street corners or holding signs for food and money–or just money.

In the dark the stoplight turned red. She grabbed her phone, “Siri,” she said. “Text Alex.”

What would you like to text?

“Ten min away, where’s a good place.”

She put down her phone. The light turned to green. She revved her engine a little too high–she’d never been very good at driving stick, even after 10 years. Her phone buzzed.

Well, are a beer, mixed drinks, or cider person?

She clicked siri, took a sharp right.

“Beer or whiskey, typically.”

Then we should go to the Copper Hog.

“Sounds good, see you there.

“Siri, look up The Copper Hog in Bellingham Washington.”

Down the hill the taillights of other cars flared. The warm lights of the buildings splashed their warmth through the cold glass windows. Her car lurched over pumps and then she took a right, then a left and another left.

As she drove by The Copper Hog looked like a sleepy place, but then–it was a Monday. She parked on the street, since it was after five o’clock it was free. She wondered what this would be like–she hadn’t seen this guy since high school–and even then they hadn’t known each other in any likely sense to be meeting up at this house, on such short notice. The only reasons she’d known him was because his high school girlfriend had been her rival at Tennis. And maybe she’d heard stories about parties at his house? His dad had let them party there when they were young. She supposed if they still had parties they might still have them there–but whatever, most parties were lame.

Outside The Copper Hog sat a small patio fenced in by a sturdy black metal fence. Inside the place was a pretty typical sports bar–though to her right were many tables nicely set. In front of her was a large copper hog and to her left and little in front of her stood a tall slender frame with broad shoulders. Even though he wore a hat she could see long hair flaring out from below the slouchy beanie. There were a couple other people in the bar, but it was dead, really. Mondays.

She walked forward a little slowly and as she did the slender form turned and Alex’s face trained on her. His mouth broke into a smile and he began to laugh. It was a strange laugh, rather high for a man, but it seems slightly contagious, as she found herself smiling as well and then laughed a little also.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey, good to see you.”

“Yeah,” he swooped in for a hug and the one armed it. No use in getting that close–it’d been 9 years, about.

“Whacha drinking?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” she said.

To the left, along the bar–lit with dim lights that gave the whole bar a warm feeling even though outside it was cold enough for your breath to be seen–was a chalkboard with a list of all the beers.