Friday, July 27, 2012

'but sometimes you can't be sure...'

My mother, a few months back, had a run-in with the police. By which I mean that she was working in the garden one spring afternoon when a cop car pulled up in the back alley (this is not as threatening as it sounds -- we are talking small town America here, not the mean streets of Gotham, and this particular alley is lined with wild flowers and climbing roses) and asked if she lived there.

When she nodded, he asked if they could talk. She, ever the polite hostess even while anxiously awaiting the worst, asked if he wanted a cup of coffee. He proceeded to spin a tale, an outlandish tale, involving a husband gone missing half a century ago, a suspected murder, and the concrete floor of my parents' garage.

That was merely the beginning. My mother and stepfather, in cooperation with the local police department, cleared out years' worth of accumulation (rusted barbecues, rain buckets and potting soil, boxes of old books and baby clothes and photographs and letters). Eventually there was space for the police to bring in ground penetrating radar equipment.  The grandson of the missing man came to the house, along with a local news crew, and the police set to work. The GPR picked up something -- an anomaly, an unknown, perhaps a body -- grounds enough to break through the concrete, dredge up what may lie hidden beneath.

But the story was even stranger than that.  The missing man, Isak Iverson, disappeared in 1967. He was 71 years old, and had been married to his wife, Helga, for fourteen years. They were both born in Norway. He emigrated to the United States in the '20s, she sometime after World War II.  During the war, it is said, Helga was a member of the resistance, and had the distasteful but necessary job of disposing of Nazi bodies in the ice and snow of the Norwegian mountains.

Family lore was that she'd offed her husband, buried his body in the family garage, poured a new concrete floor, and eventually reported him missing.

Yesterday equipment was brought in and concrete was smashed and absolutely nothing was found. My parents, Isak's grandson, and gawking neighbors milled around outside waiting for news, and word spread quickly that there was no body; that Isak Iverson was still missing, will officially probably be missing forever.

The police still believe Helga killed him (old stories linger of a blood-stained corner on a wooden dresser, a wallet with cash left bebind), and that his body is likely somewhere on the property ("A beautiful place to rest," said one cop, and he's right), but the investigation is over. The story is finished.

But maybe Isak, despite all the evidence, just left: started a new life, found a new wife, retired in his golden years to a warmer, balmier place -- Hawaii or Florida or sunny San Diego. Or maybe there was an accident -- an argument and a push and a fall, and the inevitable ensuing panic. Or maybe Helga, resistance fighter who stood up to one of our great human evils, really did murder him but had her reasons.

It's hard to think that we will never know, that sometimes there is no closure, and that this is truly where the story ends, shrouded in a strange and lingering sense of mystery and history and loss.

"Disappearances, apparitions; few clues, or none at all.
Mostly it isn't murder, a punishable crime -- the people just vanish. They go away, in sorrow, in pain, in mute astonishment, as of something decided forever. But sometimes you can't be sure, and a thing will happen that remains so unresolved, so strange, that someone will think of it years later, and he will sit there in the dusk and silence, staring out the window at another world."
(John Haines, The Stars, the Snow, the Fire)

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