‘I washed the death off my hands’ after the worst call of my life

Join me in the abyss where I remember trying to save an 11-year-old boy – with his killer standing near

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By George Cowgill

I had the greatest first sentence ever written. It set a time, a place and a plot, and I let it roll around in the shadows of my brain for years. Yes years, because I’m a slacker, an avoider, an escapist. But now, after rereading this article for the 100th time, that sentence started sounding meaningless.

I had a really good name for this essay, too, and then I quit writing nonfiction and forgot it. Nonfiction, what a joke. For the last three years, the only writing I’ve even attempted is fiction and, honestly, there hasn’t been much of that either. I wondered why for a time, wondered why I quit doing something I love, but then I stopped caring. Fuck therapy, if I dig deep enough, I can answer to my own enemies because they are all right here [taps on skull, thumps over heart].

So the world is right again. A boy is dead and a killer is in jail, and I wish I could tell you I forgot about it, but … I still run to the black when I can’t sleep. But, you know, justice.
So the world is right again. A boy is dead and a killer is in jail, and I wish I could tell you I forgot about it, but … I still run to the black when I can’t sleep. But, you know, justice. (Photo/Cowgill)

I washed the death off of my hands. They were already black-stained from a house fire earlier in the day and I’d scrubbed them hard, and we got another call, and they were still black. I put latex gloves on over them, but death has this way of bleeding all over you.

Later that night, after all of this, I stood on my toes in the shower, stretched my arms against the ancient tile of Station 19 and did the math. Added up how many calls I’ve run in my lifetime of employment with the Birmingham Fire Department. The number I came up with was 13,000. So when I say this was the worst call I’d ever been on ….

My hands shake as I type this; I think my muscle memory forgot how to type. Tell the world. Tell the world that my armor was pierced that night. Not so tough now, am I? No bad jokes and no laughter.

And I laugh a lot. Example?

The police got there first, and they slammed this guy hard against the side of the cop car. Hands cuffed – oh-so odd for a car crash victim; even with the drunks they don’t act this way. Smith and I looked at each other and laughed. We laugh at a lot of things, most firefighters do, and climbed down out of Engine 19. Walked past the cop car and the car crash victim in the backseat yelling through the bars, “I swear to god, he was driving!” Up to the one-car wreck, peering into the wreckage and the other man in the wreck, a corpse that’d been dead for days. Dead for days, stuffed under the backseat, stuffed as far as a corpse could go. The needle was still in his arm, though, give him credit.

Just one bad example of many, laughing and joking all the way into the black, the pain of being alive so much greater than the ease of death.           

But now, what if I tell the world …

What if I told you I knew of a child-killer, and I use that description in the most literal way. The child was 11 and he was beaten to death by a man, a grown man, a “grown-ass man,” as you hear so many comedians and singers say. But no, no one is going to laugh, because this is not a sitcom and no one is going to dance, because this is a not a song.

I know of a child-killer. He bashed an 11-year-old boy’s head into the floor, crushing his skull, caving it in actually, both above his eyes and the back of his head. The boy’s chest and legs and feet and arms were covered in bruises, and he was soaking wet but fully clothed because he’d “slipped in the shower about 30-40 minutes ago.” At least that’s what his killer said.

The dead boy had a black eye.

His killer. Standing there. Breathing. Same air as me. And I know. I was there. I heard him say that. The dead boy “slipped in the shower.”

I started CPR, taking over for a cop friend of mine. I did chest compressions while Jason bagged him.

“When did this happen?”

“About 30 minutes ago,” the killer said to me.

On the 911 call, the killer – yes, the killer called 911 – told an amazing story about an 11-year-old boy falling in the shower.

In the middle of his tale to the dispatcher, he stopped and turned away from the phone to yell at the dead boy’s mom. “Let me take the lead when the cops arrive, here’s what I’m going to tell them. When I got here, he had fallen in the shower, FOLLOW MY LEAD!”

My dream job is to write fiction, sigh. Fiction, where authors are gods of outcomes, unbound by facts or reality. Yet if I wrote this amazing mystery and on page 77 the killer said those words, mid-conversation to a 911 operator, you would roll your eyes and put the book down. You would tell your friends how you quit reading Cowgill’s latest thriller because it was contrived bullshit and no one, NO ONE would do that. “No child killer would do that,” you’d say.

But what if I told you I did CPR on a dead child, and I felt the back of his skull and it was caved in just as bad as the front of his skull, and he was coated in bruises, and he had a black eye? And he was dressed in pants and a shirt because that’s what you do when a child falls so badly in the shower that he crushes in both sides of his skull – you dress him, then wait half an hour and call 911. Maybe his killer made coffee first, too, who knows, that would just be me speculating.

When I have trouble sleeping, a trick I’ve learned is to close my eyes and imagine I’m running as fast as I can down a path in the woods that leads to this big black hole that no one else knows about, no one has ever seen. And deep breaths through my nose, out of breath too, I fall into the black, the fall never-ending, and it’s cold and it’s dark and … it’s my little trick to get to sleep.

So what if I told you that night, on my knees in the puddles of shower water from that dead child, pushing down on his ribs so hard they cracked and broke under my fist, I found myself falling through the black? It was cold and dark and there was a killer standing over me, standing next to the police officers, and he was watching with the fakest of concern.           

There’s no God, not here, and you know it’s serious.

Curious little children poked their head in the doorway to watch, oh-so oblivious.

I screamed that he needed to be in handcuffs, and they took the killer in another room and sat him down at a table, maybe to finish his coffee that, speculating, he had made before calling 911.

Jason was in charge that day, and when the call came in, he was going to leave me behind to cook but changed his mind. “Bad feeling,” he said.

Bad feeling, huh?

If I could tell you he’d left me behind to cook … but he didn't, and now there’s a dead boy waiting for me in the black that I used to escape to for sleep.

So you're with me now. What next? What do we do? And I said “we,” because we’re in this together now, me and you, reader. You're with me. You're on your knees in the pooled-up shower water, breaking ribs to keep a child alive (he’s not alive) in the same poor neighborhood of East Lake that we grew up in.

And that boy was pronounced dead 30 minutes later at Children’s Hospital. And the killer was arrested, handcuffed and everything, because that’s what they do to criminals and all, and I should know! I see the movies, I read the detective novels and crime comics … all the reliable sources. And the killer went to jail because killers belong in jail, or in the gallows, but this one went to jail. And I went to a black hole in the woods in the back of my mind, and a dead 11-year-old boy has greeted me there more than once.

And justice?

There are certain words that I hate. I hate the word party when it’s used as a verb. I can’t really explain it, but if I tried, I would say it reminds me of every idiot growing up that defined rebellion as getting drunk, getting high, getting coked-up on weekend nights. If you’ve read anything I’ve ever written, then you are unfortunately aware of how I grew up on the outside of outsiders – straightedge at a too-early age with friends that crawled through their teens wasted. Party on, right?

Well I also hate the word justice. The way people use it is so demeaning. Justice – this faceless conclusion of righting a wrong, retribution, revenge. Are we supposed to feel better now? Justice. The word makes me cringe.

And justice is random.

So the world is right again. A boy is dead and a killer is in jail, and I wish I could tell you I forgot about it, but … I still run to the black when I can’t sleep. But, you know, justice.

But what if … What if I told you that a year later, the killer was found guilty of a misdemeanor, time served, and walked out of jail with nothing but a demerit on his record, one that was less damning than a DUI or selling weed? And that it went to trial, but no police officer, firefighter or medic on scene was called to testify. No one contacted me wanting a statement. No one called anyone I work with who was there that night wanting a statement.

Justice doesn’t always call.

When I read the outcome, a misdemeanor citation for abusing a child and beating him to death, I closed my eyes and cried, so angry with everyone. Hating myself, and hating this world, my hatred of mankind oh-so strong, my abandoned faith oh-so-serious. I hated every choice I’d ever made, every wrong turn, right turn. I hated my Father, veteran firefighter of 23 years, for creating the path I felt compelled to follow, and most of all, I hated whoever it is who decides who is worth fighting for and who is not.

And until now, before writing this, it made me feel so alone, isolated with the memories of a dead boy that no one gives a fuck about.

To quote Alice Cooper, “How you gonna see me now?

His skull was crushed in on both sides.

Should I re-write that sentence? Here, try this one: His 11-year-old skull was crushed in on both sides.

Better? Let me try one more time: His 11-year-old skull was crushed in on both sides, and life has never seemed so meaningless.

Writing this was fast and black and lightless. This is the abyss. This is Joy Division lyrics at midnight. In the rain. In a graveyard. In a coffin. In the ground. And there are songs, songs we all know, sort of. Next time you're alone and alive ... play them loud and dance and sing along with the parts you know. Make up the rest.

We are back in that room. That night. Me and you. And that boy’s not gonna make it. We can push on his chest all we want. His killer stands over us in the midst of a nonsense explanation, this godless house with children spectators, and we want to cry, want to die, want to kill. We want justice.

And we all watch as this dead boy does not come back to life.

Does it make me feel better sharing this with you? Having you there with me, holding my hand, on our knees in shower water on a dirty wooden floor, less than a mile from where we grew up?

Nope. Not one bit. But you are with me now. You are in the black now, too.

“Two coffins for sleep, one for you, one for me … we’ll get there eventually.”

– Against Me!

About the Author

George Cowgill is a second-generation firefighter and has been with Birmingham (Alabama) Fire & Rescue for 14 years.

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