They call it the Hill. It’s the place that took Tom. It’s the place where, on April 22, 2012, Tommy “Bo” Ray Bryant, 28, was killed — allegedly by an uncle. It’s this little property outside of Walnut Grove, Mo., this little rise off of Highway W that haunts a family — and yet remains central to their lives.
story by Jordan Hickey / photos by Jordan Hickey and Dan Oshinsky
published August 18, 2012
There’s a glow where there ought to be dark. Two sisters are staring up through the trees where there are red lights gleaming. Neither has any desire to be here at the bottom of this place, pulled off to the side of the road and looking up a broken path — they ought to be praying with their kids, putting them down for the night because there’s school tomorrow. But instead, they have been summoned out here by one of those dreadful late-night phone calls that come too late in the night and bring shock and tears. There’s no light. No moon. And past the mailboxes — leaning and battered like a grey bouquet of flowers, each showing the numbers of an address: 397 Hwy W — past the path that winds up into the dark, they can see red lights filtered through the trees.
Then Lee and Angie start up the Hill.
Turning up around the bend, there are bits of white rock crackling when their feet hurry up in the dark. Lee’s legs are bound by her long blue jean skirt, and she looks up where Angie is already ahead and moving faster. Angie’s yelling that they’ve got to go faster, and Lee yells back that she’s trying, but it comes out hoarse. She’s out of breath. The incline is rough on tires and rougher on feet. The trees bend and curl over, so that the women are running through a tunnel when a human-shaped cut of the darkness emerges from the rest, and there’s the sound of other feet up ahead. And a voice.
Lee can hear Angie shouting through the dark.
The voice comes out of the dark, saying, “Tommy’s gone. Tommy’s gone.”
The man’s almost sick, and even close up his face gets shaded. They don’t try to stop him as he stumbles his own way and cuts a path through the rock down to the base of the Hill. Angie is hollering at him. What do you mean, gone? He’s not gone, don’t lie, he’s not gone. Lee’s not sure what to do. They start again and move faster and the pitch dark gets cut away by the red lights and they can hear people. And then they can see them.
Circling the perimeter determined by the police tape, stretched down the gravel road, there are people they can trust. A work boot scuffed and chalked up and white protrudes from behind one of the cop cars. There’s no blood.
Paramedics are trying to get a woman to talk. She has sharp features and huge eyes that sink down in her face, set all the deeper this evening, and when the paramedics ask if she wants to take her boy — Tommy “Bo” Ray Bryant — off life support, she tells them she can’t answer the question. Not now. She won’t even look that way. Her husband, Benny, tells them she’s not fit to answer the question, that she’s the mother of the man there lying on the ground, and she’s in hysterics, so maybe he should answer, and they tell him that they need the answer from her. They need the answer from Dee.
It takes some time to answer, but eventually Dee does, and she dissolves back into the line of the family, and the hours slip by. It’s 9 and then 10 and then 11 and then later. They’re still up there, Dee and Benny, two of her nieces, Angie and Lee, a few others from the family, a small fraction of the family that spans four generations here in Walnut Grove, Mo. Nearby state troopers take photographs and consult with the coroner. He offers his condolences to the family. He explains that, considering the nature of the death, they ought to have an autopsy performed.
There’s nothing else that they can do, and so, looking on, the conversation dwindling, rumors still ebbing wildly, they stay there for hours even though no one feels safe. Every possible refuge of peace of mind is denied — the time and the place won’t allow for a calm. There can’t be calm because this is a place that’s never known it.
When they talk about this place, they just call it the Hill. And technically, that’s exactly what it is. It’s a rise in the ground that swells away from the road, from State Highway W; a path lined with broken white rocks and pocked with divots, wide enough for one car but certainly not for more than one. And for most anyone who stops and looks up the path, it might seem a bit ominous, but for the family, it’s a place that’s gotten downright vilified — and rightly so.
The Hill, if you were to ask them right now, is the reason why a few years ago, they lost one of the most beloved members of the family. The reason they lost Bo this evening. The reason they’ll all appear in court a few months later and will continue to appear in the hall each time the man who’s been accused of Bo’s murder appears in public.
However, for as much pain as the place has caused, any discussion of this family can’t be conducted without the Hill. Because for as much as the place has been vilified, it’s a central point around which this family, for the past several years, has revolved. Because of what it means to them. Because of what it meant to Bo. Because of how it’s brought them back together.
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There’s barbecue a few plates deep on an oblong folding table propped in front of a trailer, and there’s one last morsel of fried venison, and there’s pasta salad made with ramen noodles, soaking in sweet vinaigrette. Dessert’s been served. And there’s so much else that fades away in increments as people get up from the semicircle of folding chairs stuck in the lawn, break the games of washers and football, and come up for seconds and thirds. Off to the side, lounging on the back of a pickup that’s seen better days, there are adults chatting and keeping one eye on the children plunging down the Slip ‘N Slide off behind the trailer, who slosh back from the end and realize that there’s not enough towels to go around.
A few of the kids come sprinting from around the back, mount the sagging steps of the wooden porch leading to the trailer’s door and burst inside. Inside, Lee and her Aunt Doris field the interruptions, explain where towels can be found and continue talking about the past.
“…Every once in a while, I get to be reminded of things that he would do. Goofy things,” Lee is saying. “He loved his animals. He loved to scare me with green tree snakes.”
“He liked to carry them with him to school with him, too,” Doris adds.
“Yes, oh my goodness,” says Lee. “He played trumpet, he played the trumpet, and his green tree snake was in there, was in the case.”
“It was in the case with him at school.”
“Just that one time.”
“Just that one time,” says Doris. “Yes, because I’m pretty sure that Miss Kelly found out and he got sent home.”
“Oh, yeah,” Lee interjects. “Oh, yeah.”
“But that’s Bo,” says Doris, picking up the thread. “You know, you hear the things about how you reach into your kids’ pockets and you find a frog, that was Bo.”
For much of the afternoon, this is the conversation and one memory leads into another. Because when Lee’s asked to talk about her cousin Bo, the stories that she has about those better days, that other family members have about those days, always gravitate toward what Bo was like when he was younger and they’re all seamless.
Blue skies and wriggling pockets prompt stories of blackberries and wildflowers, decapitated Barbie dolls, the nutritional merits of Chap Stick, roly-polies, bales of hay, games of “Tornado” and how there’s no better pretend horse than one of those propane tanks with the handles. Splinters off the rounded fence posts that made pincushions of their hands lapse into memories about a hu-mong-gous black snake and how Lee and Bo had picked the chocolates off the tree when the family celebrated Christmas for the first time at their grandparents’ house there on the ranch.
She talks about the place that her grandparents had back in the late ’80s and ’90s. They owned a ranch in Walnut Grove, where Lee has spent virtually her entire life, where the family’s been for years and years. It’s a small town just north of Springfield, with a population of 656. And as is the case with so many of the small towns orbiting Springfield, it’s a place you don’t stumble upon by accident. It’s a place where people live the majority of their lives. It’s a place that to someone passing through might seem to have seen better days, but there’s a community there, and people are proud of the town. There is a downtown, but most people seem to live on the roads that unspool on the hills and bend around the center.
The ranch where the Mullins family lived for years and years was set back deep on one of those. It was a place with two houses and room for a trailer. Where at one point or another, just about all of the seven kids, Bo’s parents and Lee’s parents included, had lived for some extended period of time. Those were the good years, Lee remembers. Those are the years she talks about when she talks about Bo.
When she talks about those years, nearly two decades later, Lee has her hair pulled back tight into a bun. Her eyes are small behind her glasses and mostly serious and reserved. It’s the face that you have to examine for a few moments before recognizing it as the same face from those early family photos. The one that for so many years was so similar to Bo’s that they were often mistaken for siblings or twins. But when she keeps talking, and future starts intruding on the past, the smile drops, the illusion that the past projects starts to fall apart. It’s only possible to restrict conversation to the past for so long without allowing it to move forward. It’s only possible to keep the Hill out of the picture for so long.
At this point in the afternoon, about an hour into the conversation, there aren’t as many kids passing through the house. Lee is still in the recliner. Her sister, Angie, is off behind the counter, washing dishes and pans and silverware that are cycled through as the dinner finishes. There was a point when dinners like this were fairly common, not strictly reserved for the major holidays. It was probably around the time that the family moved off the ranch, when all the family members started to get married and have their own kids, that they didn’t meet quite as often. It was around the time that Dee and her husband, Tom, and Bo moved their little trailer to the Hill.
It was the beginning of the end.
“Angie, when Dee and them moved from the trailer, where grandma and them lived, where did they move to?” Lee asks.
“That’s when they moved the trailer to the Hill,” Angie says from the kitchen.
“Oh, well, that’s when our relationship left after that. Because that hill …” Lee pauses for a moment. “That hill is dope hill. My parents … I mean, you weren’t allowed up there, period. I mean …”
“I went up there some,” Angie says, looking over the counter. “Mom would never let us stay the night up there. We could go up and see Dee Dee, but …”
“And see, that’s the thing. It wasn’t Uncle Tom and Aunt Dee.”
“It was where they were at.”
“It was where they were at,” Lee echoes.
“And they had to move the trailer there, there was nowhere else for them to move it,” Angie says.
There were holes that broke through the floor and there was no running water and the tub became unusable. Alcoholism latched onto Tom and refused to let him go. They’d moved up there because it was convenient. Bo’s great uncle Bunky had offered Tom the chance to work nearby, to live on the land right there. They’d be able to move the trailer up there. Up there on the Hill. And when they moved up there, things were fine for a while. Tom was working. Dee was working. Most everyone was healthy. But then they weren’t. Tom started to drink. And he drank a lot. He still loved his nieces and nephews and his wife and his son. But eventually the drink started to get to him.
The years swept by and then it was the day after Christmas in 2005. Tom was getting ready for work and tried to blank out a hangover with painkillers. His body couldn’t handle it. He died that morning. For about a week after, Dee and Bo had the outside world to keep them going. Bonfires every night. Celebrating and mourning and remembering Tom. But then the world kept going, and they couldn’t. Dee and Bo retreated into the trailer. Bo laid down on a couch. Dee was on a loveseat off to the side, still in view of the entertainment center. They turned on the television. They turned on the VCR. And for two solid weeks, they only watched movies. And for a few months after, Dee slept there on the loveseat. Her ankles started to ache because, even for as small as she is, she didn’t fit. But she slept out there because going back into the bedroom she’d shared with Tom just seemed wrong.
But she was all right because she had Bo. He was her cocoon. He kept her safe from the world after the Hill took Tom away.
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The weather this afternoon is pleasant. A few hours have gone by and Lee is on the porch. She’s monitoring the kids inside, listening to the sounds they make, determining if there’s any reason for concern. She’s talking about Bo. Talking about Little Debbie brownies. About how when they were younger, Bo would pick the nuts off his half and give them to her.
But really, when Lee talks about brownies, she’s not talking about the distant past. She’s talking about a few weeks ago. She’s talking about the funeral a few weeks ago. How she’d brought along a package of brownies, intending to put them beside him, put them somewhere near the casket, where he was lying there, so handsome, such a good looking young man, didn’t deserve to go so young. But she couldn’t. One of her uncles had pushed her to say goodbye. Because, as she remembers him saying, she needed to be able to say goodbye. She needed to be able to say goodbye in her own way to the Bo whom she had known before — the Bo who had made her childhood what it was.
The ranch and the way she spent her childhood — those are memories crystallized in the past and untouchable. Memories that are special to Lee and the family alone and only exist in photos and old family movies. Memories cut short. Bo died just two days shy of his 29th birthday. But the Bo whom Lee knew stopped aging after 17 — she didn’t know the man who lived the next 11 years. It’s something that she’s had to come to terms with, something she realized in the chapel. Because the people there at the funeral, some of them were mourning a person she didn’t recognize.
“You know, half of them, I didn’t know them. They knew Bo, but I didn’t know ‘em,” Lee says. “That was weird. And then with them having … they had the thing that showed different pictures during the funeral, and they were all of him as an adult, and I didn’t really know that Bo. You know what I mean? So that was kind of hard. So in my own little way, I’ve had to mourn kind of feeling lonely, just ‘cause I’m mourning over the Bo that I knew.”
As she sits on the porch and rocks back and forth on the swing, people start leaving or at least preparing to leave. As they walk by, Lee stands and tells them how nice it was to see them. The conversation moves forward to the nature of mourning and how — or if — the family has changed. There’s a little girl playing on the porch, putting her hands through the wooden rails, playing with a plastic duck that’s there beside the potted flowers Angie’s arranged on the ledge.
“Whatchu looking at Makaylee?”
“What does the duck say?”
“That’s right, that’s what the duck says, Makaylee.”
Dee comes over and is getting everyone ready to go, including Makaylee, Bo’s four-year-old daughter, her granddaughter. Dee asks if she’s in a better mood, because these past few weeks, even if she doesn’t entirely understand what’s happened, have been tough. Dee asks if she doesn’t need to use the potty before they go. It takes some time to leave. There’s some talk about the next time they’ll barbecue, but it’s mostly talk about where they’ll all be meeting in a few weeks. In a few weeks, most everyone will meet together at the courthouse in Bolivar, Mo. They’ll come for the preliminary hearing for the man who’s been accused of killing Bo. They’ll come because it’ll be the first time they’ll have seen the man since his face graced television screens and newspapers nearly a month earlier. The man who by marriage was at one point Bo’s uncle — Tom’s sister had been married to him for a time.
But he’s not the reason they’ve gathered here tonight. The reason they’ve gotten together is the same reason there’s a white-lettered decal on the back of Dee’s car that reads, “IN LOVING MEMORY OF MY SON TOMMY (BO) RAY BRYANT JR. 4-24-83 — 4-22-2012.” They’re not going to stop talking about him. They won’t let him fade.
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Oh My God there he is. There’s a flash of orange from beyond the glass, and the light outside glints off the chains. And when the doors swing open, there’s silence. Not like a tomb, but a silence that begets tension and tension that begets silence. Accompanied by the delicate jangle of cuffs and chains, it’s a wicked cycle. The group wearing orange jumpsuits emblazoned with the letters PCSO files into the courthouse and they take their places behind the Mullins family. They’re standing behind the family. For a moment, everyone’s waiting for the elevator that will take them to the courtroom on the third floor.
Dee’s head is lost. Sans thoughts, sans everything, words — the Oh My God, the words spoken aloud to no one — swept away all the formed and defined coherence that had been there, making thoughts chores, and so everything is lost in the emotion boiling up toward the man she knows is there, waiting for the same elevator, 15 feet behind her. The elevator through this all — through these few moments, just a few — ticks down the numbers. The fluorescent lights are buzzing. She doesn’t turn, but she knows he’s there. The doors of the elevator slide open and the family moves across the threshold and turns. Dee looks out into the small group of people chained together and she sees the man who’s been accused of murdering her son. Then the doors close.
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It’s June 20, nearly two months to the day after Bo’s death, and the family has come up to the Polk County Courthouse in Bolivar, Mo., to hear the first on-the-record accounts of what happened up on the Hill that night in April. The elevator doors open, and they just go through the motions, a series of moments that get lost in memory because these moments are inconsequential compared to the ones that follow. They set off a metal detector, dig through a purse in search of a pink fishing knife, get odd looks from the guard and eventually get waved through to the courtroom. They give up their phones, which are placed in a drawer that also has pieces of hard candy stored in the back, and go through the glass doors into the courtroom. They have to wait. There are other matters to be settled. Other disputes and bent and broken laws. Eventually, it comes. The judge, Judge Sims, says what he needs to say and calls Shannon Jack Shaffer, Sr., the accused, down to the floor.
Then it starts.
A state trooper is called to the stand and he recalls how he found the scene. He talks about the acceleration marks on the ground, the lack of blood on the grass, the aftermath of the pursuit and where they found the alleged murder weapon — in this case, not a gun, not a knife, but a Jeep Cherokee — at a gas station in Springfield. How it seems the way he found Bo was “consistent with being hit, knocked down and drugged.” He gives a clinical version of what he saw, but his face softens at times when choked sobs from the gallery break the restrained silence of the room.
After he’s said all of this, he leaves the stand and a man named Geno Eagleburger takes his place. Geno is the man the family needs to be calm, collected and in the right mind. A man who at this point has been so rattled that there’s even been some talk of giving him something to calm his nerves before he gets up there.
Seeing him, there’s not a chance he’s slept. His eyes are slung down in his sockets, set there like afterthoughts, drooping down to connect with the rest of his face which is haggard and covered in a layer of prickly, straw-colored hairs jutting out at every angle. He was the last one to see Bo alive, among the last to see him catch a breath, and when he’s asked to give his address, his own home address, Geno can’t for the life of him remember. He kneads his eyes as if to coax out the answer to a question he knows but seemingly can’t answer this afternoon. Then he does, and it’s as though a switch has been flipped — a light goes on and illuminates that night, takes out the darkness, reveals the process, the conflict and outcome. He says that he lives up there on the Hill. He says that Bo was his nephew.
Earlier that day, there had been some trouble. There had been some fighting. There had been some alcohol. He says that Bo had been trying to apologize for what had happened. That was the sort of guy Bo was, quick to anger but quick to forgive. When he’s asked to identify the man who killed his nephew, he points to the man wearing the orange jumpsuit.
“Shannon Shaffer, him right there.” Geno pauses. “The one over smiling. … I guess it’s a big funny game or something.”
He’s immediately reprimanded for saying that, and then says, “Sorry, sorry, sorry, I am sorry,” before continuing with his testimony.
That evening, Geno says, there were still about 45 minutes of daylight left. He was walking Bo back up the road from his mother’s house, Bo’s paternal grandmother’s, toward his sister’s house. He had been walking him home. When they heard the motor revving, they got off the driveway. They must have been about seven to 10 feet from the driveway.
But between them and the Jeep behind them? It was about 10 to 15 feet. That’s all, Geno says. Something like two body lengths between where he and Bo were walking and where the Jeep was behind. The motor roared. The vehicle leapt forward. Geno jumped back closer to the drive. Bo put his hands up, and it was over in a moment. Under the wheel, dragged under, head and arms thrust from the side, the tire on his chest. For 50 yards, he was beneath the car, and it wasn’t until the Jeep hit a divot in front of his aunt’s place that he came out from underneath the tire. The Jeep went on without stopping. It went on down the road and swung left for the turn. It passed by the place belonging to Bo’s Aunt Teresa, where his uncle had come out with a gun. It passed along the road, passing the metal scrap heap, the pens of rabbits and pigs, the tree missing whole chunks of its side where Bo had once practiced throwing swords and axes. It continued by a wilting white trailer with its lights on. That night the lights went out and didn’t go back on.
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During the preliminary hearing, the moments when Bo died get examined and prodded, extended, measured out and quantified. When the state trooper says that the man who was killed on the Hill that night was identified as Tommy “Bo” Bryant, Dee, biting her lip, nods her head as if in response. When the officer says that once they recovered and examined the Jeep, it was determined that “something uncommon had been run over.” Bo’s grandmother’s neck turns a bright red, and you can’t see Dee because she’s bent down and brought her hands to her face.
And it’s about this point that it becomes impossible to watch their reactions. There’s audible sniffling that persists, and slight gasping when details are leaked that they hadn’t known before, like when the coroner describes the state of the body when he arrived on scene. He recalls seeing Bo’s jacket crumpled, ripped apart and rolled up on his back, the abrasions on his bare legs, how the work boots he’d been wearing got scuffed up as he was being dragged across the road.
If you can stand to look over, you’ll see Bo’s fiancée is at the end of the row. Her name is Alicia, and she’s dressed in dark red. Her eyes are puffy. In her hand, there’s a balled up tissue, and on her shoulder, there’s the enormous hand of a younger man who’s sitting beside her, a man who, even though he is technically family, has not been to the family gatherings organized in the wake of Bo’s death. He’s from the Hill. Or about as close to being from the Hill as it’s possible to be. He’s the grandson of Drew, a woman who’s also here this afternoon.
Drew’s been here in the courtroom longer than anyone else. She is diabetic, her ankles fitted into special white compression socks and ringed with a purplish hue. She’s wearing a white cotton shirt crowded with sprays of purple embroidered flowers. She’s Bo’s great aunt. Bo had been taking care of her just before he died. And to some extent, she had been taking care of him as well.
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Outside the courthouse, the grass is green and the sky is very blue; there are clouds that suggest rain, but with the heat, there’s not a chance. Alicia is on the sidewalk, speaking with a friend who’s pregnant. She’s wearing sunglasses that totally obscure her eyes and all the emotion that’s penned up behind, but considering how everything went during the hearing, you can’t blame her.
Geno sits in the front seat of Drew’s van, saying mostly to himself a half-hearted mantra of “I’m strong” — everyone there immediately agrees. Up close, he seems even worse than he did on the stand. His eyes aren’t sunken but are so faded and drained that he almost seems as if he were dead himself — you can tell here that he’s a shell of himself, and it’s not impossible to surmise what has caused it. He’s slumped over in the front seat of the cluttered white van.
And as with everything, when they get ready to leave — the people from the Hill — it takes some time before they’re able to go, because everyone is saying their goodbyes and moving through the gossip. But then the door of the big white van slams shut, and it leaves. It takes the road through town out to Rt. 13 and drives south toward Springfield for about eight miles before turning onto 215. The van skirts the upper boundary of Walnut Grove and winds along turn after turn, hill after hill, along 215, which becomes State Highway W, until it drops along a bend and turns off the road where mailboxes are clustered like gray flowers. It goes down a road, up an incline, and it comes in sight of a wilting white trailer. It stops on the Hill.
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There are car tires, tractor tires, a kiddie pool, rabbit hutch, folding chairs, plastic buckets, wooden beams, blue cooler, trash bin, plastic cups, detached sink with a silver faucet and hot and cold water handles, plastic pitcher, Tupperware, blankets, blue tarp, yellow foam, couch, scrap metal, television, tricycle, construction helmet and a million other things on the ground around the trailer. The steps that lead up to the door are made of wood, and the door’s held shut with a rock. The floors inside are covered with red carpet, and not much else. A mattress fills a back room, and it’s important to tread lightly over the tattered fabric and detritus that line the hall because apparently there are snakes.
This afternoon, there’s light filtered through the windows in the front room. But as unnatural as it seems to have such a broken place illuminated this way, lit up by the light filtered through the mostly covered bay-style window, what’s all the more unnatural is to hear Kevin, Bo’s cousin, reminisce about everything that once made the place a home. Because there’s nothing left to suggest that it ever was. There’s really not much else besides the carpet and the light. At this point, looters have been in and out, and the family’s been by to pick up things they couldn’t stand to part with. When he walks through the place, Kevin doesn’t talk about what’s there now.
Well, with a few exceptions. The empty bottle of Chili pepper-flavored vodka can’t really go unremarked upon. Nor the fact that they’d tried to make some themselves. Nor how Bo could eat anything spicy — even the hottest stuff they could find — and it would hardly faze him.
There’s a place on the carpet that Kevin points out. A few years back, he says, they’d been drinking champagne, because that’s what Bo said people drank on New Year’s, and Bo had made a bet with Kevin. He bet him that he could kick all the way over his head. Bo was about as flexible a man as Kevin has ever known. He was the sort of guy who could practically put his foot on the ceiling and was in such a fine physical state that he could wrestle 30- and 40-pound catfish out of the water on his arms.  Who could climb the tallest tree, go to the top of the tallest bridge and dive into the water, who was so fearless that he’d do just about anything. But when Bo said he could kick over Kevin’s head, Kevin bet him that he couldn’t.
It must have been a bittersweet bet to win. He remembers looking up from the ground at Bo, who was a bit stunned but immediately burst out laughing, the sort of laugh that Kevin says could really just make you feel like dirt.
As he walks through, these are things that Kevin remembers. He’s a big guy, doughy-faced, cheeks that hide his eyes when he smiles, which is most of the time. He is wearing a shirt, technically, though it’s only a few buttons that find the corresponding holes. He has a black hat, which stretches well above his unkempt hair.
He talks about the way that Bo would sit up at rapt attention, tears almost in his eyes, a ball of emotion over the myriad television heroes, both real and imaginary, that he admired. Optimus Prime. Conan the Barbarian. John Wayne. Bruce Campbell. When Kevin talks about Bo, the subject of heroes and the impending zombie apocalypse — the idea of which, Kevin notes, never seemed to stray far from Bo’s thoughts — are never far behind. But there’s a reason for all that. He talks about how important it was to Bo to be there for others — and Kevin, like just about everyone up here for that matter, has stories about the ways that Bo played that role.
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A little bit later that afternoon, Kevin is sitting on his Aunt Teresa’s porch. You can see where a small memorial’s been erected just across the road. There’s a cross with Bo’s name running across the beams. Just above it, there’s the green sheet that was put beneath his head. Kevin and Teresa are talking about a sign that, when they find it in the field, will go just beneath the memorial. It was a sign that Bo put up at the base of the Hill. The sign read:
“If you come up here with your lights off, then you ain’t coming back down.”
It was from the one time that Bo failed in his role as a protector — and maybe he wrote it to remind himself of that just as much as he wrote it to warn anyone who’d come up the Hill and threaten the people who live there. He couldn’t forget because people up here wouldn’t allow him to forget.
In the story, there’s a car moving over the gravel, slow and with its lights extinguished, swimming in the night. It’s dark, so perhaps they’re burned out. From the trailer, you can see it wind its way up the hill, navigating the turns and avoiding the divots that plague an unpaved, infrequently traveled road. The people in the car are lost in the dark. The car almost idles as it slips past Bo’s trailer and pulls into the house next door. There’s a man who comes out of the trailer, but when he sees the people walk onto porch, he goes back inside.
The door starts banging, and Teresa’s eyes open with a start. The clock reads something like 2:30 a.m., and she doesn’t think much of the sound because it’s not so unheard of for Geno or Bo to make their way into the trailer at this hour, grab something from the kitchen, maybe some milk or maybe something else. She’s up already, so she starts reading her book when there’s a scream that starts her running. She makes it out of the room, and there’s someone with a mask brandishing an ax. Teresa turns behind her to see her husband, dressed in his “unders,” moving back into the room for his britches. She can hear her daughter Sassy screaming. Sassy’s pregnant and the guy who’s got her by her hair is beating her face and her slightly protruding stomach. She’s getting dragged out of the house, toward the car. Teresa has her phone out, is calling the cops, and one guys starts hollering, “She’s dialing her phone, she’s dialing the cops, she’s dialing the cops, she done got them on the phone. Gotta go, gotta go.”
Teresa runs next door and starts banging on the door. Bo’s body fills the frame and she tells him what just happened, how they’d — that’s all they are right now, they — come in with weapons and everything else. And she tells him how they were punching Sass, how now she’s screaming bloody murder, and all he says is, “I’m coming.” She tells him that they’re gone, and he says that he’s still coming. The way Teresa tells it, Bo wouldn’t stop until he’d found the people who’d done this. Because if there was one person on the Hill who would make sure that the people up there could sleep easy at night, it was Bo. There’s a reason Teresa went to him first.
It’s the sort of story that you get used to hearing about Bo. He was a protector. He was the sort of guy who’d hunt down someone who’d done wrong to his kin and wouldn’t stop until he’d found the guy or had at least achieved some degree of vengeance. He was, to hear Kevin say it, “like a big terrifying angel.” If he were on your side, you didn’t have much to worry about. But if you got on his bad side, there was really no help for you.
But Bo was more than that — and for a very good reason. There was a reason that he had a garden. There was a reason that he’d calmed down a bit in recent years. There was a reason he made sure that he’d have work the next day from one of the three places where he could get hired. There was a reason why he’d made the trailer livable, the reason that his place was the warmest on the Hill, so warm that even in the winter you could have the door open and keep it heated. There was a reason that even in April, he was stocking food for the following winter.
The reason was his daughter.
¶ ¶ ¶
Drew’s mind isn’t quite as sharp as it once was. The past is a bit of a blur. When she thinks about those old days now, there’s very little to set one apart from another.
But there was always the constant. Bo was always the constant. Every morning he’d make his way from the trailer to the cabin, drink coffee with Drew, and every afternoon he’d stop by the cabin to tell her about his day.
He’d bring baby rabbits, push the sliding glass door to the side, and show Drew just how big they were getting, though in truth they were still growing and the difference was hardly noticeable. He’d say things like he really did wish that he could just stay at home. He would have preferred to raise animals, the rabbits, the pigs he’d purchased and retrieved in Drew’s slowly disintegrating white conversion van, and grow vegetables. That’s the way he would have liked it.
He was, in Drew’s words, something of a modern-day Huck Finn. He was perfectly happy to live off what he could make himself, raise himself, pick from the ground himself. He said that he’d much rather have just spent the morning rocking Makaylee and looking off into the woods at the land. But he went to work, worked for typically about $100 a day, because of her. He had to protect his baby.
She’s the reason that Drew claims it was like Bo “had two hearts. One of his hearts was like rock, and the other was soft just like modeling clay.”
She’s the reason that Kevin can say, “Just any time she done any little thing, smallest thing, the littlest bitty thing that that baby’d do, he just light up like a Christmas tree.” And the same reason that he goes on to say that Bo would have been content to live under a rock, but because he had Alicia and Makaylee to worry about, “he done everything he could to make them a little bit better off.”
She trailed him up and down the road the mornings he went to pull water in the five-gallon buckets that he held in his hands, which seemed almost effortlessly lifted as he went up and down the Hill to get water. Although the trailer was outfitted with plumbing, there were more than a few days when the water just wouldn’t work. Bo wouldn’t let them go without water. Makaylee was daddy’s girl. She was BoKay. And she’s the reason that, had he been given the opportunity and the resources, he might have moved off the Hill.
There’s not a person who knew him who’d say he wasn’t compassionate. It was a trait he’d inherited from his father. Tom was a logger who’d bring animals home — animals that had been injured by falling trees. There was the fawn whose mother had been crushed, for example, that took up a temporary residence with the family, the raccoon he’d brought home and attempted to save.  When a particularly vicious pig was terrorizing the place, Bo had gone outside to contemplate the animal’s fate three times before he was finally able to do the job.
It’s almost as if there was some conflict that was raging within him. Kevin says that it was like Bo was a demon, he could be equally merciful or wicked depending on where you were standing. He had those two hearts pulling inside him, always trying to gain an advantage. It’s a conflict that’s not difficult to imagine raging within him — whether it was better to fight or take flight. And when that night came with Shannon and the Jeep, it seems clear what side won out. The Bo who wouldn’t back down from a fight, the one who could get back up after a boat fell on him, the one who’d whoop and holler with the best of them, the one who seems to have bore that same mindset as the heroes he watched on television.
Or perhaps it was just involuntary. No one’s really sure why he did what he did.
What’s certain is that Bo put out his arms in front of him. He tried to stop the car.
¶ ¶ ¶
¶ ¶ ¶
There are some things that you need to know about Bo.
You need to know that he was a Ford man, would even pass up the opportunity for a Porsche if given the option, because he believed God gave Ford as a gift to the world.
You need to know that he could eat. That he gained more weight than his fiancée Alicia did when she was pregnant. That he ate cereal from a punch bowl. Ate snake, squirrel, rabbit, mushrooms, blackberries, ham — and virtually anything that came out of the ground.
You need to know that the man, the way he looked, could send people to the other side of the street. But also that for every year of his life, he had a cake featuring the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and would have taken the toys even in his 20s had someone actually given them to him. That the spray on his casket almost matched the color scheme from the cartoons.
You need to know that he despised shoes and preferred overalls.
That he was country.
That he never walked away from a fight.
That he was never afraid to forgive.
That his desire to protect the people he loved was ultimately his undoing.
That he tried to stop the car, he held his hands up as it was coming toward him, but even he couldn’t do that.
That he was loved.
¶ ¶ ¶
You need to know that it’s only possible to speculate as to why he stayed up on that Hill.
It’s the reason that when you discuss Bo, one of the common sentiments expressed is that it wasn’t all too surprising to hear that he’d been killed. But it’s really not that simple. People say there’s a certain risk that comes with living in a place like the Hill. But in the same breath, they say that he didn’t really have much of a choice. Not too long after Makaylee was born, he realized he had some obligations he hadn’t had before. And he would have liked to provide a better life for her and for Alicia — he even had hopes of moving to a little place there in town, but, as his aunt Angie puts it, poverty is a cycle, and it’s a hard one to break.
But listening to his Uncle James, you get the sense that there were many reasons that Bo didn’t move elsewhere. It might have had something to do with the fact that he didn’t have much money, but that was only part of it, James says.
“Bo had two hearts. One of his hearts was like rock and the other was soft just like modeling clay.”
When the two got together, they talked about death and other things. They’d speed down back roads or slouch down into the seats of whatever vehicle they were sitting in. They’d talk about fishing or getting stranded in the middle of a lake in the middle of the night. They talked about the pickup Bo had just purchased, and how proud he was of that little red truck. But for all its twists and variations, the conversation inevitably came back to death. He’d tell James that he was going to die up on that Hill, just like his dad did.
“I told him, no one’s going to think that you’re less of a man ’cause you need help,” James says. “I said, ‘Fuck, everybody needs help sometimes, but he wanted to do it,’ he wanted to hisself. And he did, can’t nobody take that away from him. He lived the best he knew how to live, he lived it. Not a day goes by that I wish I could drag him off that Hill, but he didn’t want off that Hill. That’s where his dad died … he told me, that’s where my dad died, that’s where I’m going to die.”
When Tom died, Bo was there to give him mouth to mouth. The paramedics arrived and didn’t spend even 30 seconds working on his dad. It was already too late, they told him. Bo just couldn’t understand it, but that same Bo was the person who kept Dee intact. And when he was killed up there on the Hill, that last protector was suddenly gone. Her safety net had been taken away. There was no one there to catch her.
¶ ¶ ¶
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A few weeks after Bo’s death, the home of Mary Ann and Ken, Dee’s parents, is filled with people. A clock chimes on the hour with bird calls instead of bells. There are tiles that aren’t tiles curling where the wall beneath the cabinets meets with floor, the kitchen counter is filled with bags, bags of food, snacks, chicken, desserts. A bag of potatoes is on the ground. There’s water sloshing around in a humidifier. And none of it’s noticed. The family is spread out on the couch, slumped over the side of the ottoman, halfway in the kitchen, halfway out the door. Bo is on the television. They’re watching the video slideshow that was played at the funeral.
He is putting his face into a cake frosted with the likeness of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. Holding his daughter, Makaylee, on his lap. Celebrating a 21st birthday, not entirely sober. Wearing denim overalls. Not wearing shoes. Not wearing socks. Hair cropped short. Country as country can be. Watching the people on the TV react to Bo, watching the people in the room react to what’s on TV, you get the sense that this is a man who is loved, was loved, and that he reciprocated those feelings.
Everyone in the room has seen the slideshow, has already gone through the cycle of emotions that the photos tend to elicit, and just about everyone there said they’d be willing to watch it. But not everyone.
Not everyone can stand to see it one more time, because of what it means. Bo is now limited to what exists in the photo albums, in the frames that Dee’s brought with her and in the slides that pass across the screen of the television in this modular home — by definition a trailer, but which is a home in every sense of the word.
Dee said she’d wait outside. But there she is, behind the couch, eyes fixed on the screen. She’s standing even though there’s a piano bench right behind. She’s watching with her hand below her mouth, knuckles below her lip. She is a small woman with sharp features. Big eyes that are frequently ringed below or swallowed up with hints of red or blue or even green powder. Her emotions this afternoon are erratic as she’s been consoled by one person after another.
The afternoon has gone by in a blur. She was at the pawnshop earlier, trying to recover a chainsaw using Bo’s ID that she carries in her purse. She’d rather that Alicia have the ID because she can’t bear to look at it any longer. These are the things that keep Bo alive.
She talks about how she’d like to get a tattoo, one like the bull that Bo had on his left arm. She says that she’d like to mix tattoo ink with his ashes. One of her nieces helped her change the signature on her phone to read, “Love Bos Mom,” and she talks about the decal she’ll put on the car.
She talks about how important it is that the family continue to host these dinners. When Tom died, they let the death drive them all apart. She doesn’t want to see that happen again. She knows how important it is for them to keep talking about him, because that’s how people get remembered. As the slideshow comes to a close, ending with the day he was born and the day he died written out in white script across the screen, there’s not much to say. Dee comes around to the family on the other side of the couch.
¶ ¶ ¶
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In the days that followed Bo’s death, there were signs almost immediately. When they saw an “I <3 U” was spelled out in the clouds. When feed dumped on the ground for the pigs he’d been raising made a heart. When peppers in Bo’s garden that had been so reluctant to pop and flower before sprouted within days of his death. All of these seemed almost incidental but were timely in the way that such signs appear when they’re needed most.
Other things which appeared and comforted and consoled were more tangible, less open to interpretation or skepticism. Bo’s notebook filled with to-do’s and grocery lists. Voicemails he left on his mom’s phone. Things that would have under any other circumstance been claimed as coincidence but that now took on special meaning. Things that people clung to.
Then there was the prayer that Bo had written a few days prior to his death:
Great Spirit give me / the strength for each / new day and the strength / to stand tall when the / end comes and look / after my loved ones / with your never ending / love and Protect / mother earth from evil / Men. and i thank u for the gifts in every day.
¶ ¶ ¶
The house is made of wood. Dee’s house is made of wood. Long, unbowed planks running dark up above, building to a point, and below, running side to side, from the back of the house to the front where she’s sitting smoking now one cigarette after another. There are three ashtrays on the table with several new-looking stubbed-out additions, indications of the one vice she allows herself and which has imbued her speech with a certain raspiness shared by many in the family.
The couch that she’s sitting on is beige, picked out by her parents and given to her because they didn’t like it; there’s a sheet on the lower cushions with flowers, pink carnations by the looks of it; more often than not, she’s seated on the far righthand edge of the couch, crouched in a ball with her feet beneath her. It makes her seem smaller than she is.
She leafs through the photos stacked in bricks filling the Ziploc bags and albums spread over the couch. With Tom, she can look at them and it’s fine. Fine to the extent that it can be fine. That he’s died is tragic, and there’s not a soul in the world who’d dispute the tragedy of a life that ended the way his did — the way that he was falling apart in the last years of his life, ensnared by chemicals and addictions, the way that he passed just a day after Christmas, how when the family saw him in the days leading up to his death, it had seemed that he was doing all right, it seemed that he would have liked to get better. It’s not that he would have liked to go the way that he did. But we’re the products of the environments that we inhabit, the habits we pick up and never drop, the way that we break down.
Tom’s death was one to mourn, but it was one that people — the way they discuss it now seven years removed — understand. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that it was a loss.
With Bo’s it was abrupt. It was something more. She can’t stand that he’s gone.
“It’s a creepy feeling that I have in there with [Bo’s] pictures,” Dee says. “It’s like an anger creeping … because it’s that Bo … he’s really dead. And … I don’t know if it’s as simple as Tom was drinking hisself to death and taking too many different drugs and whatever — we knew he was dying — Bo was 28, he shouldn’t have. Shouldn’t have happened to Tom neither, but when you’re drinking yourself to death, it’s going to. I don’t know if it’s just because it’s my boy. The simple fact is that I like to look at Tom’s pictures, I don’t like to look at [Bo’s] pictures. It makes me too sad.”
Makaylee is here at the house, wearing a pink tank top with broad white stripes; her hair is like it always is, pulled up in on top of her head; she has huge cheeks and her mouth is very small between them; she is slightly cross-eyed but it’s endearing. You can tell when she’s looking at you because of how intense her focus is. When she first comes through the door, she’s holding a pink and white Cinderella umbrella, which entirely hides her face and upper torso from view as she walks straight through to the back of the house.
It’s around this time that Dee’s eyes go bright, throw off the frustration and loneliness that death brings, slip away from that and become strong, and maybe it’s just the way that the light hits her through the window where a car’s sitting, white sign decaled across the back with the dates of his life and then death, but for a moment, there’s strength, and you know that this is going to be all right.
Of course, it’s a moment, and the moment fades. It fades into the music of “Dora the Explorer” drifting in from the room nearby where Makaylee is watching and repeating the words. Dee’s husband, Benny, is watching and repeating the words to help her along. It fades into reality, the egg salad on white bread Dee’s got on the plate on the arm of the couch, still hardly touched, with the exception of a half she picks at from time to time and the chips which disappear at intervals.
All the obligations pressing her forward start to press once again. There are bills and petty disputes to be addressed and resolved, affairs to be made right and rectified. There’s the still-distant yet already approaching November court date, when Shaffer will stand trial and the members of the family will steel their nerves and relive the night once more.
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Dee calls and says she should have said something before. Something she feels rather awful for not mentioning before, but she wasn’t entirely comfortable sharing it. She starts out by saying that “I don’t have my son to call me in the morning … to figure out what I want to do.” She then talks about the Saturday after he was murdered. It was only this one time, but she took the ashes that held her son and the urn with her first husband’s as well, and she took them both out to the back porch. The back porch is screened in and looks out onto a barn, the woods, and it has a green couch with legs that have been clawed into tatters. Taking the two urns, she curled into the corner of the couch, looked out through the window, and she drank her coffee with her son and her husband.
It ought to be said outright that the two men the Hill took away, her son and her first husband, died in very different ways. And they’re being remembered in very different ways. Tom’s death split the family apart. Bo’s has brought it together. Bo’s being gone is the reason that the family has been getting together month after month for the barbecues that each household takes a turn in hosting.
“The simple fact is that I like to look at Tom’s pictures, I don’t like to look at Bo’s pictures. It makes me too sad.”
But at the same time, Dee says that she’s concerned. Because getting together requires commitment. Because the family split apart after Tom died, and what’s to stop it from breaking apart again?
“It’s like it’s taboo or whatever you would call it,” Dee says from her place on the couch. “But that could just be me feeling that, you know? It could be that it just hurts them and they don’t want to talk about it. My therapist says that, it’s what people do. And the promise, you call them at any hour, I’m there for you. But they’re really hoping you don’t call too much. Too long afterwards. Because they don’t like reality. Reality is if Dee calls, people get killed. And people don’t like that.
“‘Cause that forgetting and that not keeping them fresh is what bugs me, even though I can’t right now because it hurts me too much. I don’t want to lose those memories. I would like to talk about Tom; other people don’t. And so, me and Bo was alone, and I said, ‘Does it bother you to talk about your dad, son?’ I like to talk about him. He said, ‘I see my dad in my dreams every single night.’”
The truth is that the Hill, for all that it’s done to the family, is really just a place. It’s a hill with a lower-case ‘h,’ where members of Tom’s family live. And when Dee talks about everything that resulted from their moving up there, it needs to be said that the hill might have played a part, but it wasn’t the cause.
Even if Bo hadn’t died, Dee says later, she’d still consider that place a hellhole. But “it’s not that [Tom] died per say because of the hill.” The hill was a place Dee and Tom first moved because it was convenient for work. The hill was a place that Bo left for a few years after his dad died, but then he came back because the trailer there was a place he could rent for cheap.
¶ ¶ ¶
But whatever distinction it has within the family, the reputations that it’s tainted and bent and warped, isn’t because of everything that’s happened there. It’s a result of the ebb and flow, the rise and fall of relationships as people drift apart and become foreign to one another — when they become as abstract and symbolic as the hill itself. But with Bo’s death, when much of the family looks down the hill, surveying everything that surrounds this swell in the land of Walnut Grove, Mo., what appears on the horizon is an opportunity they didn’t have before, a chance to re-forge the bonds that have fallen into disrepair, to do what he would have liked them to do.
It’s true that the area has no shortage of faults and flaws. And people will say that it’s a scary place, a place of loose ethics, loose everything, wrapped in threadbare moral fiber. But the truth is, for as awful and repellent as it might sound to the people who’ve been wronged, there’s little doubt that they’ve still got ties to the place. For as much as they hate to acknowledge it, they’re still part of it. They still have family up there. It’s a place that — even if he was trying to get away — was home to a young man with a young family.
And even for as tragic a loss as Bo’s was, there’s a legacy there to fulfill. The family talks about what Bo would have liked them to do, how he’d like to see events and happenings proceed, but of course that’s only true to an extent. There’s no denying that the influence Bo had is now limited to the way in which he lived his life. Makaylee will never have the father that she should have, but people around her will tell stories about how he lived, and because he was a good man, and because he was a strong man, those are better than they might have otherwise been.
People can stay alive in many ways, and the gatherings that they have now are where Bo will be most present. He’ll be there because the family is together. He’ll be there when the sun is going down and they’re all still there on the field, the barbecue gone, playing football in front of the fire. Together.