The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich is a book not only about how the story of one crime was constructed—but about how we grapple with our own personal histories (available May 16, 2017).
Before Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich begins a summer job at a law firm in Louisiana, working to help defend men accused of murder, she thinks her position is clear. The child of two lawyers, she is staunchly anti-death penalty. But the moment convicted murderer Ricky Langley’s face flashes on the screen as she reviews old tapes—the moment she hears him speak of his crimes—she is overcome with the feeling of wanting him to die. Shocked by her reaction, she digs deeper and deeper into the case. Despite their vastly different circumstances, something in his story is unsettlingly, uncannily familiar.
Crime, even the darkest and most unsayable acts, can happen to any one of us. As Alexandria pores over the facts of the murder, she finds herself thrust into the complicated narrative of Ricky’s childhood. And by examining the details of Ricky’s case, she is forced to face her own story, to unearth long-buried family secrets, and reckon with a past that colors her view of Ricky's crime.
But another surprise awaits: She wasn’t the only one who saw her life in Ricky’s.
The boy wears sweatpants the color of a Louisiana lake. Later, the police report will note them as blue, though in every description his mother gives thereafter she will always insist on calling them aqua or teal. On his feet are the muddy hiking boots every boy wears in this part of the state, perfect for playing in the woods. In one small fist, he grips a BB gun half as tall as he is. The BB gun is the Daisy brand, with a long, brown plastic barrel the boy keeps as shiny as if it were real metal. The only child of a single mother, Jeremy Guillory is used to moving often, sleeping in bedrooms that aren’t his. His mother’s friends all rent houses along the same dead-end street the landlord calls Watson Road whenever he wants to charge higher rent, though it doesn’t really have a name and even the town police department will need directions to find it. Settlers from Iowa named the town after their home state but, wanting a fresh start, pronounced the name Io-way, even as they kept the spelling. The town has always been a place people come for new starts, always been a place they can’t quite leave the past behind. There, the boy and his mother stay with whoever can pay the electricity bill one month, whoever can keep the gas on the next. Wherever the boy lands, he takes his BB gun with him. It is his most prized possession.
Now it is the first week in February. The leaves are green and lush on the trees, but the temperature dips at night. Lorilei, Jeremy’s mother, isn’t working. She rented a home just for the two of them—their first—but the electricity’s been turned off. Her brother Richard lives in a sprawling house up on the hill, but she isn’t staying with Richard. Instead, Lorilei and Jeremy are staying with Lorilei’s friend Melissa, Melissa’s boyfriend, Michael, and their baby. The baby is two years old, old enough that he wants to play with the boy and screams when he doesn’t get his way.
Today the baby is wailing. Jeremy, six years old, just off the yellow school bus home from kindergarten, eats his after-school snack in a hurry, dreaming of getting away from the noise, dreaming of the fun to be had out in the woods.
At the end of the road there is a weathered white house and, behind it, a thatch of woods. The woods are the dense, deciduous, swampy kind, the kind in which rotting leaves mingle with the earth and the ground gives soft way beneath the boy’s feet. Though the thatch is very small, with only a single ravine like a scar in the earth, a single place to play war or dream of hiding away forever, these woods are Jeremy’s favorite place to play.
He asks his mother for the BB gun. She takes it down from the shelf that keeps it safe from the baby and hands it to him. Jeremy runs out the door. Two children near his age, a boy name Joey and a girl named June, live in the white house by the woods, and though Jeremy likes exploring on his own, it’s more fun when Joey can join him. He goes to their door and he knocks.
A man answers. The man wears thick glasses. He has a small head and large jug ears. At twenty-six and only 140 pounds, Ricky Joseph Langley is slight for a grown man—but still much bigger than the boy. He, too, grew up in this town. Now he rents a room from Joey and June’s parents, whom he met when he started working with their mother, Pearl, at the Fuel Stop out on the highway. He’s supposed to pay Pearl fifty dollars a week, but he’s never been able to afford it. He makes up the money in babysitting. Just a few days ago he looked after Joey and Jeremy. He brought them soap when they were in their bath.
“Is Joey here?” Jeremy asks.
“No,” Ricky says. “They went fishing.” It’s true. Joey’s father and the boy packed up poles just twenty minutes ago and drove out toward the lake. They’ll be gone all afternoon. “They’ll be back soon,” Ricky says. “You can come in and wait if you like.”
Jeremy plays at this house every week. He knows Ricky. Yet he pauses.
“Why don’t you come in?” Ricky says again. He opens the door wider and turns away. Jeremy walks over the threshold, carefully props his BB gun against a wall near the entryway, and climbs the stairs to Joey’s bedroom. He sits down cross-legged on the floor and begins to play.
Ricky climbs the stairs after him. He wants only to watch Jeremy play—later he will say this, later he will swear to it. But the watching changes something in him, and from this point on it is as if he is in a dream. He walks up behind Jeremy and hooks his forearm around the child’s neck, lifting him into the air. Jeremy kicks so hard his boots fall off. Ricky squeezes.
Jeremy stops breathing.
Maybe now Ricky touches him; maybe now he can admit to himself what he’s wanted since seeing Jeremy in the bath. Maybe he doesn’t. In all that will come from this moment, the three different trials and the three different videotaped confessions and the DNA testing and the serology reports and the bodily fluid reports and the psychiatric testimony and all the sworn sworn sworn truths, no one but Ricky will ever know for certain.
Ricky picks up Jeremy, cradling the boy as if he were simply asleep, and carries him into his own bedroom. He lays him out on the mattress. He covers Jeremy—no, this is a body now; he covers the body—in a blue blanket printed with the cartoon face of Dick Tracy, detective. Then he sits at the edge of the bed and pets the blond hair.
There’s a knock on the door downstairs. He goes to answer it. In the entryway stands a young woman. Her hair is the shade of brown that is often a childhood blond.
“Have you seen my son?” When Lorilei asks this, she is three months pregnant.
“Who’s your son?” he asks.
“Jeremy,” she answers, and Ricky realizes he already knew.
“No,” he says, “I haven’t seen him.”
She sighs. “Well, maybe he’s gone to my brother’s.”
“Maybe,” Ricky agrees. “So why don’t you come on in? You could use our phone. You could call your brother.”
“Thank you.” Lorilei steps inside. To her right, propped up against the wall, is a Daisy-brand BB gun, its long brown barrel shiny and smooth.
But she steps to the left. She does not see the gun. He offers her the phone and she dials, looking for her son.
TAPED CONFESSION OF RICKY JOSEPH LANGLEY, 1992
Q: Do you know why you killed Jeremy?
A: No. I ain’t, I never even thought I could, I mean, that’s the first time.
Q: And what made you decide to do it?
A: I couldn’t tell you. I’m still fumblin’ with it in my mind, trying to figure out, you know. It’s like I know I did it, but yet it’s like if, something you read in the newspaper.
Q: Sort of like a dream for you, Ricky?
A: I guess. I couldn’t really … I don’t know how I’m supposed to act.
Q: But you know you did this?
Q: Now, you’ve had problems with kids in the past.
Q: You want to tell me about those?
A: It’s just, I can’t explain. I guess that’s my destiny, okay, it’s true.
Copyright © 2017 Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich.
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Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich is a 2014 National Endowment for the Arts fellow, an award given for her work on The Fact of a Body. She has received a Rona Jaffe Award and fellowships to the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo.