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What is Gone


ISSUE:  Fall 2011
Dome of the pavilion in the Sunken Gardens in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Dome of the pavilion in the Sunken Gardens in Lincoln, Nebraska.

I’m that person who watches, who holds back, who eschews sentimentality at the same time she maintains a nostalgia for the past, who remembers in detail particular nights at the Drumstick and who frequently references Miller and Paine, a department store that closed in the 1980s. Now the Miller and Paine Building houses offices, and blinds hang in the windows where mannequins once posed in the Season’s Latest Fashions, the mannequins themselves consigned to the city dump.

My mother and I shopped in Miller and Paine. We ate chicken pot pies and cinnamon rolls in the Tearoom on the fifth floor. Some of the waitresses had been there twenty or thirty years, and they walked slowly, their wrists bent under the weight of heavy china plates and bowls. My grandmother, who died before I was born, had worked there when she was young.

On the second floor, the women’s restroom consisted of an enormous powder room and an adjoining room containing at least fifty stalls. The overhead lights cast a dim golden glow over the marble walls and sinks. As a child, I was fascinated by a smaller room near the entrance to the powder room. It was called the Ladies’ Lounge, and its walls were lined with cots. Women who had tired from shopping could lie down and rest in the dark.

 

These buildings are or were located in Lincoln, Nebraska, a town much remarked upon for its safety, reasonableness of price, excellence as a place to raise a family. Until the 1990s, my parents never locked the back door. Nights in high school when I couldn’t sleep, I’d walk down Sheridan Boulevard at 3 a.m. and never imagine that I might be putting myself in danger.

I liked the dark. I liked the quiet. In spring, the smell of lilacs blooming along the median filled the air.

I never considered the possibility of danger, even though dramatic violence erupted in Lincoln every decade or so. There was Charlie Starkweather in 1958, for instance, and the O’Shea murder in the late 1960s. Jane Weaver strangled her daughter in a house four blocks from my parents’. I remember the morning it happened; it was a Sunday at the end of May 1972. We were going to my aunt’s house for lunch, and my mother took a picture of me in the green dress she’d made for the occasion. In the picture, I’m holding our cat, Emerson, and I’m wearing panty hose for the first time.

 

The past is layered beneath the present, and places in the past are smeared with blood.

Driving along Van Dorn, I pass 24th—the street that leads into the Country Club—where the Wards lived. Charlie Starkweather and Caril Fugate broke into the Wards’ house, forced the maid to make pancakes, then shot her, Mr. and Mrs. Ward, and Charlie broke the black poodle’s back with the butt of his shotgun.

Every time I drive past the intersection of 24th and Van Dorn, I think of this, and then I’m past the block and climbing up the Van Dorn incline to the light at 27th and thinking of something else.

The old Miller and Paine department store on O Street in Lincoln.
The old Miller and Paine department store on O Street in Lincoln.

 

In the fall of 1992, I was thirty-one, a graduate student in the English Department at the University. I was living in the house I’d purchased a year earlier for $27,000—a little bungalow on California Court, a block of modest, almost-identical houses built in the 1920s for young marrieds just starting out. The house had beautiful hardwood floors, a narrow kitchen my mother hung with ivy-patterned wallpaper, and built-in bookcases where my Cheever and Munro and Updike books were shelved alphabetically. I shared the house with Yogi, an eighty-pound Chow Chow, and we had a comfortable routine: I taught in the mornings, then Yogi and I took our daily constitutional down 27th Street and around the Children’s Zoo, following the bike path that bordered Antelope Creek. Bugs sang in the tall grass that grew between the path and the creek; the llamas at the zoo approached the fence and batted their long-lashed eyes at Yogi. A lonely camel whose enclosure was some yards away from the rest of animals appeared cheered when he saw us. People we passed on the bike path often stopped and stared at Yogi. “What is that?” they’d ask. We were, after all, behind the zoo, and Yogi did look like a lion.

In the evening, I finished my homework while Yogi lay on the porch, keeping watch over our small patch of lawn. Before bed, I turned the deadbolts on the doors I’d already locked, thinking, every time, that this seemed to be an extravagance of caution in Lincoln.

And then, on September 22, 1992, a girl disappeared.

The author’s former home on California Court with the State Capitol building in the distance.
The author’s former home on California Court with the State Capitol building in the distance.

 

September 22 was a Tuesday, and I had a night class from 7 until 10. It would be dark when I walked back to my car, and since the time I’d lived in Omaha in 1985, I’d felt uneasy walking alone at night. I decided to bring Yogi to class with me.

He sat in the passenger seat of the Corolla and stared out the front windshield like a person would. In the Composition Theory class, the other students momentarily cooed over the big fluffy dog, and then turned to discussing Foucault. Yogi went to sleep on the floor next to my desk. Pretending to be taking copious notes, I worked on a story based on an interesting rumor I’d heard: that when Hitler planned his takeover of the United States during World War II, he’d chosen Lincoln to be his center of operation.

On September 22, Scott Barney and Roger Bjorkland were out looking for trouble. They talked about robbing a bank, but they believed they’d end up getting caught. They decided, instead, to execute a fantasy that the two of them had discussed: to abduct and rape a woman.

The campus was quiet by the time class was finished. Yogi and I walked along the path that led from Andrews Hall to Love Library. Trees had begun shedding and you could hear fallen leaves scraping the sidewalk. Yogi’s nails snicked against the asphalt. With Yogi next to me, I didn’t have to listen for approaching footsteps, didn’t have to evaluate the weight of the person walking or judge the relative speed of his approach. If someone menacing came along—and what menacing person would come along; we were, after all, in Lincoln—I knew Yogi would turn his golden eyes in that direction and growl low in his throat, his sharp eyeteeth showing when he raised his lip.

We walked past the Business Administration building, crossed the lot behind the Sheldon Gallery, and climbed in the car. We got home around 10:30. We went inside and I locked and dead-bolted all the doors as I always did at night.

 

On September 22, Scott Barney and Roger Bjorkland were out looking for trouble. They talked about robbing a bank, but they believed they’d end up getting caught. They decided, instead, to execute a fantasy that the two of them had discussed: to abduct and rape a woman. Their grisly motivation was similar to that of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two friends who, in 1924, kidnapped and murdered a neighbor. “I am sure, as sure as I can be of anything, that is, as sure as you can read any other man’s state of mind,” Leopold said in a conversation with doctors and state’s attorneys, “the thing that prompted Dick to want to do this thing and prompted me to want to do this thing was a sort of pure love of excitement, or the imaginary love of thrills, doing something different.”

Barney and Bjorkland drove around Lincoln on that clear September evening, looking for a suitable victim. They parked in one of the University lots and waited for night classes to finish. No luck. They began driving again. The two men considered, and dismissed, a woman sitting on a porch, another woman walking.

 

Candice Harms was a freshman at the university. On Tuesday, September 22, she’d been studying at her boyfriend’s apartment. She left there at 11:40 to go home.

She was five-foot-four, with shoulder-length brown hair. She weighed 115 pounds. She had two part-time jobs, one at Bryan Memorial Hospital and the other at the seed lab on East Campus.

Candice Harms almost always met her curfew. Her mother described her as “an overall good kid.” She and her parents were living in an apartment at 61st and Vine Streets while they waited for a new house to be built. Before she left her boyfriend’s apartment, they’d been talking about a wedding they planned to attend the upcoming weekend. She was excited for the event. She’d gotten a new outfit for the occasion.

 

I read that our perception of objects—what we see—is based not only on what we actually observe but what we remember. So, for instance, if you’re looking at a dog behind a picket fence, your brain will assemble the whole dog, even though you only actually see the parts of the animal between the pickets.

The Drumstick was a bar on North 48th Street where we went in college to hear bands. It’s been torn down now for years, but if I don’t look at what replaced it, if I don’t even glance at that side of the street when I drive by, I can pretend it’s still there: the stone building with the big picture window that faced the street, the uneven parking lot. Inside, dark wooden booths lined the walls and tables surrounded the dance floor. Hanging from the ceiling were chandeliers made of wagon wheels with lights attached to the rims. The stage was located by the window. Summers, two tall fans stirred the soupy air. Let’s pick a night in July of 1982. Let’s say REM is playing. My friends and I are out there with our drinking buddies, guys we’ve known since high school, and we’ve all been dancing for hours. Now our clothes are wringing wet with sweat. Everyone is cheerfully drunk. The bouncers force us outside at 1 a.m. and we stand in the parking lot, laughing and flirting, waiting to see what will happen next.

 

Candice Harms never arrived home. Her car was found the following morning on the outskirts of Lincoln, parked on a strip of brome grass adjacent to a milo field. Her schoolbooks were still inside.

Almost immediately, missing posters appeared on the light poles around town. They showed a smiling, brown-haired girl, wearing a sweatshirt with BUM Equipment stenciled across the front.

Please call with any information, the posters said. Reward.

The boyfriend was questioned, and questioned again. Men on horseback searched the fields around where her car had been found. The authorities combed the city dump. I imagined a body sinking down through layers of garbage, the coffee grounds and egg shells, shredded bills and wadded paper, and into the arms of one of the old Miller and Paine mannequins, whose own fingers had been broken off, blind painted eyes staring at nothing.

Missing, I read, as Yogi and I walked down 27th Street toward the zoo. Missing, I read, as the weeks passed and the weather turned cold. A brisk wind whistled down the tunnel of the street. The print on the posters started to fade. The girl’s face became less distinct. The police were pursuing leads, they said. They were doing everything they could. You could still read BUM on her sweatshirt. You could still make out her eyes.

The University of Nebraska’s Pound high-rise dormitory, recently slated for replacement.
The University of Nebraska’s Pound high-rise dormitory, recently slated for replacement.

 

On campus, a certain somberness prevailed. There were too many connections—people knew Candice Harms, or knew someone who’d known her, or had gone to the same high school she had. The fact that Candice Harms was a freshman inspired fear in the first-year students. That she was a female inspired fear in many of the women.

And why did I find a knife in the parking lot one Tuesday evening in late October when Yogi and I were walking back to the car? I looked down, and right in front of my feet lay a hunting knife enclosed in leather casing. Wooden handle, a five-inch blade that had been sharpened and was scratched from use.

I tucked it in my purse and took it home.

 

Why did I take the knife?

I didn’t think it was a clue to Candice Harms’s disappearance. At the same time, it seemed like an ominous object that needed to be removed so that it wouldn’t be found by someone with ill intent, someone unarmed who would then be armed and able to put the blade to use.

I might have picked up the knife for the same reason I thought about Charlie Starkweather’s victims, and Mary O’Shea, and Jane Weaver’s daughter. Looking at the handsome face of John O’Shea—he was one of our drinking buddies, a guy we danced with at The Drumstick—I was always momentarily struck by the fact that he’d once been a little boy hiding in a closet while, in the kitchen, the man who’d kept up the yard next door did unspeakable things to his mother before he killed her.

I picked up the knife so no one would use it against me.

 

All fall, the men who’d seen Candice Harms waiting at the light at 27th and Vine went about their business in Lincoln.

Scott Barney, a Lincoln native, had worked for Rex TV, but went out for lunch one day and never returned. Roger Bjorkland, who grew up in Shelton, a small town between Grand Island and Kearney, worked for Kimberly Quality Care as a home health aid for two years before quitting in 1991. In the fall of 1992, friends and relatives of the two men noticed they seemed to have large sums of cash. The friends and relatives didn’t know how the men were obtaining the money.

Bjorkland and Barney executed a number of robberies during August and September, some more profitable than others. From Rex’s TV, they obtained $2,116 on September 16. A week after Candice Harms disappeared, they robbed the Goodyear Credit Union of $30,000.

 

Johnny’s Tavern had been across the street from the old train depot on O Street. It had been abandoned for years by the time I first noticed it when I was in college; chunks of stucco were missing and most of the bulbs in the Johnny’s sign were broken. My father told me it had been a “cathouse,” a place to accommodate the railroad workers.

Every time I passed Johnny’s, I had to look through the dusty front window, cupping my hands against the glass. Inside, a single chair tipped on its side. You could see the bar along the back wall. In one corner of the window was a sign. For Rent or Sale, it said. The space for a phone number was blank.

Who’d been the last person in Johnny’s, I wondered, the one to walk outside and lock the door a final time?

 

All fall, I moved the knife I’d found in the parking lot around the house on California Court. It spent some time on the kitchen counter, the darkened leather case looking dirty against the white linoleum. I put it in the drawer of the telephone stand for a few weeks. I took it out and looked at how sharp the blade was—the edge gleamed bright silver, while the rest of the blade was a dingy pewter color. If I’d had the knife in Omaha, I wondered how things might have been different.

I lived in Omaha, the big city an hour north and east of Lincoln, for two years after I graduated from college. I shared an apartment with my best friend, who was in pharmacy school. The guy I dated was a student at the University of Nebraska Medical College. On a night near the end of February 1985, around 10 o’clock, I walked over to my boyfriend’s. I took the shortcut behind the Kwik Shop on Farnam Street. The evening was warm for that time of year—I had on a heavy shirt but no coat. It was a time in my life when I still considered myself a lucky person, exempt from difficulties and tragedies that plagued other people. I was eating an apple and thinking about the funny conversation my best friend and I had just finished.

I was crossing a parking lot next to my boyfriend’s condo building when someone called out, “Hey.”

I turned. A man was standing under a streetlight about fifty feet away. My brain registered details: Black, tall, wearing a coat and scarf. “Can I talk to you for a minute?” he said.

Instinct told me to run. I was, after all, only a little ways from my boyfriend’s, just across the rest of the parking lot and down a flight of stairs. But what if the man was harmless, just some guy behind the Kwik Shop? I’d look paranoid, rude, racist. I said, “No,” and picked up my pace. I was almost to the edge of the lot when his arm jerked tight around my neck.

He dragged me behind a garage. The ground was muddy. A full moon hung in the sky. I smelled alcohol on his breath, the odor of unwashed clothes. A car went past in the alley, but he held a knife by my face and said he’d use it if I screamed.

Later, after he was apprehended, I learned he was a serial rapist who’d been attacking girls around the neighborhood for almost a year. One of them he’d stabbed and left for dead behind a furnace in the basement of an apartment building. I was lucky: after he’d finished, he said, “Your jeans are over there,” and pointed.

I took that as permission to leave. I stood up and walked away.

 

The rapist was arrested at the beginning of March. I was one of three women he’d assaulted who testified at his trial. He was found guilty of three counts of first-degree sexual assault, with each count carrying a minimum sentence of eight years; and three counts of using a weapon to commit a felony, with each count carrying a minimum sentence of five years. The lawyer said he’d spend at least twenty-five years in prison before being eligible for parole.

Around the time of the trial, I developed an aversion to walking past anyone on the sidewalk. The aversion wasn’t close to panic or even anxiety; I’d be walking along, see a person approaching—any person, a woman or a child or an old grandmother pushing a stroller—and find myself deciding to cross to the other side of the street.

The aversion persisted after I moved back to Lincoln to go to graduate school. I was living with my parents in my childhood bedroom and taking afternoon walks down Sheridan Boulevard, possibly one of the safest streets in the entire city. Granted, a house on Sheridan had been the scene of murder; Elizabeth Weaver had been asleep when her mother—either in a state of hallucination brought on by religious delusions, or suffering some crazed despair after a rumored romance with a professor at the university had gone wrong—climbed the stairs, went into the bedroom, and strangled the girl with the belt of her bathrobe. But that incident had been personal, contained, a long time ago.

Still, when someone approached—even if it was one of the nuns from the Cathedral of the Risen Christ or someone I knew, like the neighbor lady who lived next door—I crossed to the other side of the street, or at least to the grassy island that divided the east and west bound lanes of traffic.

By the time I’d acquired Yogi and bought my house on California Court, the aversion had mostly passed. No one ever approached Yogi without asking permission; in fact, other pedestrians frequently got over to the edge of the sidewalk to avoid us, or sometimes crossed the street themselves.

 

In the composition course I taught, the students spent the time before class began by arguing about whether Candice Harms was still alive. “Maybe she was kidnapped and taken somewhere like Mexico City and she’s trying to escape,” said a female student who knew Candice Harms’s cousin.

“They should check the dump again,” one of the boys said, “if you want my opinion.”

 

Other stores are gone: Ben Franklin at Piedmont Shopping Center, where my mother used to give me a nickel to spend on the penny candy that lined the front counter. The fabric store at Piedmont where she used to work is out of business, along with Kay’s Restaurant, a few doors down from Ben Franklin, where a scene from the movie Terms of Endearment was filmed back in 1984.

And The Bistro, a restaurant where my best friend and I used to go for tuna melts in high school, is gone. The original Sandy’s bar, now a sandwich shop, was located on the corner of 14th and O Streets. We used to stand outside on winter Friday afternoons, waiting for the place to open, stomping our feet on the sidewalk to stay warm while snowflakes melted on our lashes.

 

I believe what happened in Omaha may have saved me from something worse down the road.

 

The missing girl had finally been found. Soon the posters on the light posts would be removed.

In December, two days before classes ended for the semester, the police arrested Scott Barney and Roger Bjorkland for possession of a stolen car. In custody, Barney admitted that, on the night of September 22, he and Bjorkland had first seen Candice Harms stopped at a light. They followed her to her parents’ apartment at 61st and Vine. She parked her car. Bjorkland approached her and convinced her, at least momentarily, that he was a police officer. When she tried to get out, he forced her back in the vehicle.

How long had the girl been able to tell herself that she would eventually be safe?

Bjorkland drove Harms to 27th and Bluff Road, with Barney following in his car. The girl’s hands were bound, her head wrapped in duct tape, and she was placed in Barney’s car. They then drove to 86th and Havelock Avenue, where both men raped her. Afterwards they took her to 134th and Yankee Hill Road, on the southern outskirts of Lincoln, a part of town we call the country. Bjorkland dragged the girl into a field. Barney shot her twice. Bjorkland shot her five times. The murder was senseless, and random, and violent. The men took Harms’ clothing and personal belongings back to 86th and Havelock and burned them. Two days later, they returned to Yankee Hill Road and buried Candice Harms in a shallow grave. Barney led the police to the spot in December.

The missing girl had finally been found. Soon the posters on the light posts would be removed.

 

In 1988, a national department store chain bought out Miller and Paine. The sign on the downtown store changed to Dillard’s, but the interior remained the same: the same layout, the same sort of merchandise, the same clerks standing behind the counters—Rose wiping down the glass cases in the candy department, Betty delivering food in the basement cafeteria, the woman whose name I never knew but who had been at Miller’s forever still sitting in her little nook on the first floor and pushing buttons on the machine that ticked out Blue Stamps.

Eventually, the Dillard’s people decided to liquidate the store. Like many department stores in downtowns all over the country, it wasn’t doing enough business to justify its continued existence. In the winter and spring of 1991, merchandise was marked down, sold; the remaining merchandise was consolidated in an arbitrary fashion, so you’d find yourself browsing through a collection of women’s blouses, training bras, and men’s trousers all bunched together on a single rack in what used to be the junior’s department.

On one of the last days the store was open as a department store, I rode the escalator all the way to the top floor and then made my way back down, stopping on each floor and walking through the almost-empty departments.

The Tearoom, on the fifth floor, had been closed for months. On the third floor, the pre-teen department was vacant, the business office dark. No music played over the speakers. The only sound was the escalators, endlessly moving.

The bridal department had been on the second floor. My mother worked as the bridal consultant for a couple of years when I was in junior high. One slow afternoon, her assistant—a blond girl in college—suggested that I try on a wedding gown.

We stood in the enormous dressing room, and she slipped the yards of satin and net over my head. She arranged the train around my feet. She settled a veil on my hair and pulled the sheer fabric in front of my face. I looked in the mirror. I was too flat-chested to fill out the bodice, but everything else about the dress, I thought, was perfect: the sleeves puffed around my arms, panels of lace ran from the neckline to the waist, and satin pooled extravagantly around my feet.

The crossroads of 134th Street and Yankee Hill Road, where the body of Candice Harms was discovered.
The crossroads of 134th Street and Yankee Hill Road, where the body of Candice Harms was discovered.

Now, all through the store, empty plastic hangers filled the racks. They tapped together like wind chimes when you brushed against them. Signs taped to the counters said Fixtures for Sale. Disassembled mannequins lay in corners, wigless, the seams of their wrists visible, the red paint on their fingernails scratched and chipping.

The cots were gone from the Ladies’ Lounge. They’d been removed a couple of years earlier because homeless people were going there to sleep.

I rode the escalator down from the second floor. I remembered riding the up side of the escalator when I was four or five, and somewhere between the first and second floors I got my thumb stuck under the belt of the handrail. My mother tugged frantically at my hand as we continued to ascend; I watched the handrail disappearing into the dark hole at the end of the escalator. I wasn’t scared, though I probably should have been. I was confident that my hand would be freed before we got to the top, and it was.

 

A few days after Candice Harms was found, Yogi and I took our usual walk down 27th Street. Following a week of cold and sleet, the temperature had risen into the 40s. The bag boys outside Ideal Grocery waved when they saw us. Next to the path bordering Antelope Creek, weeds poked up through a layer of snow. The creek flowed rapidly along its bed, the water foaming as it spilled over a ledge. For months, every time I looked down at the creek, I’d half-expected to see a body there, a girl, like the painting of Ophelia by John Everett Millais, where Ophelia lies on her back in a river, covered with flowers and singing, before she drowns.

The llamas trotted to the fence to greet us. The lonely camel with the lopsided hump peered over his enclosure. Yogi panted as we walked along and I unzipped my leather jacket. I thought about how each person is granted a finite amount of good luck. I wondered what quantity of my own allotment remained.

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