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Sunday, April 17, 2016

Chapter One - Never Trust a Normal Day

Sergeant Mike Treu’s dash-cam video starts rolling right about eight o’clock that night. It is a typical late July evening in southwest Michigan, where the rustbelt forces an interface of sorts between the pastoral and the industrial. It’s hot out, but not too hot, and the length of the day has leavened the sun down near the hazy horizon. The few clouds that are in the sky, set out in a swath of diminishing Morse code, find the time to produce a few none-too-serious droplets of rain, which are visible on the windshield of Sergeant Treu’s Ford Crown Victoria.

The call comes in. A child is down, non-responsive, on South Park Street. That’s a few miles from the station, which is located at Howard and Oakland in Kalamazoo, just down the road from the shiny new Homer Stryker School of Medicine, a private enterprise that is located on the campus of Western Michigan University. It is the place where just about every county in the region sends its bodies when the events surrounding anyone’s death is deemed suspicious by investigators for the de facto coroner. It receives compensation to the tune of $2,500 for each unfortunate soul that winds up on their cold slabs.

What is most striking about the dash-cam video is the powerful sound of the Police Interceptor engine in Sergeant Treu’s cruiser; he has the throttle mashed all the way down, and it is clear that the Crown Vic cannot go any faster than it is going. He slows only to make the right turn onto South Westnedge Avenue. Several other police cars are visible in the frame, also going (literally) as fast as they can. When it came to my nephew Charlie, Kalamazoo’s Finest did not dally.

Treu barrels over Westnedge Hill at top speed. He impatiently works his way through the intersection at Whites Road and then roars the rest of the way up to the 3800 block. Park Street is the first street East of Westnedge, at the corner of Parker Avenue. His very long night has just begun.

Officer John Stolsonburg came from East of Westnedge. He flew down Kilgore Road, coming in from the south onto Park Street. He mutters, “I’ve fucking been to this house before.”


It is a typically slow Sunday night at Papa Pete’s, a longtime mainstay in downtown Kalamazoo, on the corner of Cedar and Burdick, just down from the venerable State Theater. Sometimes there’s a pool league in there on Sundays, in which case the pizza kitchen would be busy, because pool players sure do like to eat pizza during their tournaments. But not this night, July 26th, 2015. For me, the guy making or not making those pizzas, it was a perfectly normal night. The ring of the telephone didn’t sound any different than it should have.

“Papa Pete’s,” I say. (What else needs to be said?) The very familiar voice, in the very familiar Kiwi accent, asks me if I can leave work right then, at that very moment. It’s me Mum. “Maybe,” I say. “What’s up?”

“Can you?” She asks again.

“If there’s a good reason,” I say. “Don’t be the Oracle at Delphi. Tell me what’s going on.”

“Can you come home now?” She asks again.

“What for?”

She draws a breath, and says the last thing I would have ever expected anyone to say. “Okay. Charlie’s dead. They’ve been trying to revive him, but they didn’t, and they’ve just now stopped. You need to come home and take care of your household.”

For some reason, this makes me angry. “Goddammit, what’s really going on? That’s sick. What do you want?”

She pauses before saying, “I can send a police car there to get you if you don’t think you can drive yourself. You need to come home now.” So I say I will be there soon, and I hang up, and I go tell the bartender what all that was about, and that I have to leave, and that I’m sorry I can’t even get the floors done before I take off.

And she says just go. Just go.


Charlie was my sister’s beloved son. He was 12. Built like most of us Hellers – none too tall, a little thicker than necessary. As I would write in describing him to the coroner much later, he was ebullient, effusive, had a zest for life, and had many loving people around him. He reminded me very much of myself when I was his age.

My sister, Theresa, had Charlie kind of late in life. He was effectively an only child, but not her only child. She gave up a daughter in her teenage years, with whom she had reconnected by the time Charlie was born, but still… as so many women like to say these days, her son was her world.

She and I and my parents all agreed to go in on a house together in Kalamazoo, despite all evidence that the housing bubble was at its most swollen, so that Charlie would have a stable home – not to mention the fact that he would be eligible for the Kalamazoo Promise: Those who graduate with a sufficient GPA from Kalamazoo Public Schools will get a free ride (more or less) to any college in Michigan. It is the only thing in decades that has given this town any hope for the future - an initiative that may or may not have been supported by the uber-wealthy Stryker Family (the donors to the Promise remain anonymous).

Charlie was set on attending Western Michigan University, and why not? His mom graduated there with a Master’s Degree. My father is a Professor Emeritus at the school as well. My brother graduated from Western… WMU Bronco blood flows in our family’s veins. When I came home to Kalamazoo after living in Phoenix for 15 years, I moved in with Theresa and Charlie. It made sense, as I had been sending up a third of the mortgage every month since 2007.

In the course of living there over the years, my sister’s son became very much like my son. I have no kids, and found that helping to raise Charlie was both a learning and a teaching experience for me.

Now I'm about to learn - as with most things, the hard way - that life is a precious and fleeting thing. I have no choice but to ponder that for the few miles it took me to get back home.

I approach from the south, as Officer Stolsonburg had. I park my car in the bask and strobe of the red and blue patrol car lights – so many. I duck under the yellow tape extending from the end of my driveway across the street and tell the first cop who looks at me that I'm Paul Heller, and that I live there.

The officer's name is Ryan Shank. He is about my age, with a clean-shaven head, and he is wearing the saddest look I’ve ever seen on a cop’s face. “I’m sorry to tell you, sir, that your nephew Dennis Wolf has died. We tried very hard to revive him, but we were not successful.”

Dennis Wolf is Charlie. Everyone called him that (his middle name), even his father, after whom he was named.

I nod, swallow, look over at my Mom’s stricken face, and say, “So I’m not gonna wake up?” I look at my right forearm, as if pinching it might somehow help, even though I know better.

“No, sir,” Officer Shank says. “I’m afraid you’re not.”

“All right,” I say. “Where’s my sister?”

He motions over toward Charlie’s wooden play fort, where I see my sister Theresa, destroyed in every sense of the word, sitting on the end of the little yellow plastic slide. My father, fresh off hip replacement surgery, is with her, gently rubbing her back because, what else can he do? The yard is swarming with police and emergency personnel. The sun is setting. Charlie is behind a black placard that has been placed between him and his family. A police photographer is fiddling with his camera nearby.

“Okay,” I say. And I head toward the rabbit hole down which we are all about to go.

pH 4.17.16


1 comment:

  1. June 11, 2016: I keep coming back to this - for some insane reason it brings comfort in the middle of the tragedy. Your arrival that long night was just what we needed - I remember you getting out of your car and walking toward the house. I still tear up just thinking about you having to drive home alone, knowing what was facing you but not realizing yet just what you were walking into - your life, like everyones, altered forever with one of youngest members physically missing from our family. We are Heller Strong! Charlie will always be with us in our hearts and memories, but we will see him again when God calls us home. There are also tears of joy as we remember the happiness that he brought into our lives - Charlie's goofy sense of humor, the explosion of laughter when he hit the chalk golf ball, the grin as he loped past us on the 4th July 2015 and him saying "isn't this great?"!!! Yep, we miss him too.