A Perfect Murderer - Ray Bazowski
“There’s something that needs to be said at the start.” This forbidding sentence was how Mother always began family meetings. Since flight was impractical and fight inconceivable, we all looked for ways to become invisible. Father became still as possible. A perfect freeze response except every now and then his upper lip would twitch ever so slightly, causing his glasses to move up and down the bridge of his nose. Jolly, who is really Jilly, but we prefer the other name because ordinarily she is such a happy girl, liked to close her eyes. This in the belief that if Mother couldn’t lock eyes with her, she would be spared. I slowly slid down my chair, one agonizing inch after another, hoping Mother would not notice her first-born disappearing right in front of her. All these efforts were ineffective, for Mother was an expert at making hidden things visible.
The thing that needed to be said at the start, indeed each time was the reason for the meeting, was something one of us had done, or not done, which disappointed her. Disappointing Mother was to be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately, not disappointing Mother was nearly impossible because she was so easily disappointed. My shortcomings typically were of the aspirational variety. This spring, for example, a family meeting revolved around an A minus grade I received. “Did I not see,” Mother asked, though it really wasn’t a question, “that the minus means subtraction, it means less than an A? To be less than is to be a failure.”
Mother’s approach to Jolly was different. Most people look for the rose among the thorns. Mother is one who looks for the thorn among the roses. That’s why with Jolly, Mother liked to use her famous if-only’s. “Your face is so nice, you would be such a beautiful girl, if only…,” she would say with a smile, like the one a shark flashes just before it chomps off your leg. “You have such a nice personality, you would have so many more friends, if only…,” she would drill down on Jolly’s insecurities. One of my favourites: “You are very dutiful and I’m sure your father would appreciate you more, if only…” That one was brilliant because she later turned on Father and blasted him for how little he appreciated his children. Of course, Mother’s backhanded compliments were always the prelude to an upbraiding for some act or omission that exposed Jolly’s true, thorn-like nature.
As for Father, his faults were so plentiful that most often Mother didn’t even have to point to any single one, but merely hint at which of his behaviours disappointed her that day. Last Christmas she sprang one on him I hadn’t heard before. “As for your carnal habit, Lenny,” she said, fixing him with a stare so intense you’d think she was Superman focussing his x-ray vision to make Father burst into flames, “you know the one I mean.” That episode sent Jolly to the dictionary the moment the meeting ended. I decided I didn’t want to know any more than I already did.
Each of us developed our own way of responding to these family meetings. Jolly retreated to her bedroom after it was over, opening an editing app on her phone, and using the filters to embellish the selfies she always intended, but never got around to posting. Father liked to hide out in the garage where he kept the old video game console I had as a child. There he played endlessly, absorbing the acclaim the game dispenses. “Good job!” he would repeat, bearing down to beat his highest score and earn the ultimate praise: “You are the Champion!”
Myself, I would go jogging. Actually, I would run at breakneck speed for as long as I could, until exhaustion drove away all thoughts except wonder at how my ringing ears could produce such a marvelous silence. Sometimes, when I ran after a family meeting, I imagined myself racing non-stop through the whole of the next school year and on to college or some job in a distant city. The pragmatic side of me said notions of escape were vain. Instead of slowing me down, this made me run faster.
One of my ex-girlfriends, and they all became exes eventually, asked me why I never tried reasoning with Mother when she lit into me. “Does the prey stop to reason with the predator?” I explained. But I knew this wasn’t the whole of it. For the longest time I did all I could think to win her approval. When it didn’t work, I began defying her at family meetings. This only prolonged the pain, as Mother would intensify her operation, slicing closer and closer to that part of me I guarded most closely. What secret was I was protecting? Only the fact that I had long ago recognized I was the failure she claimed. I knew this intimately. I just didn’t want her to know that I knew.
The thing is, and this is what made the whole situation so crazy, we all knew, Mother included, why she was so attentive to our deficiencies. Father once confided to Jolly and me that he had persuaded Mother many years ago to see a therapist, because her still-developing art of dissection was wearing him down to the point he was starting to look for an exit. Father suspected the problem was Mother’s parents, Bill and Esi, who, though outwardly genial, were themselves likely perfectionists. Turns out Bill and Esi were just what they seemed, easy-going folks who indulged their only child, encouraging her to be herself and set her own goals. Problem was she always set goals that were unrealistic. With nothing to spur on her plans but her own ambition, Mother’s overreach invariably ended in disappointments and self-recrimination. As wife and mother, she projected her own aspirations unto us, and felt our failings as her own. At least this is what her therapist, Dr. Nobliss, told her.
According to Father, the doctor’s prescription was textbook stuff. “You have to learn to love rather than loathe yourself,” he counselled. “Remember, we’re all animals, with instincts for self-preservation, and a packet of behaviours we develop for that purpose. If some of these behaviours don’t do the job, you have to find a way of changing them. How? Why, by training
I’m sure you know the best way to train an animal is with rewards. That’s exactly what you’ll have to learn to do. Keep rewarding yourself every time you resist an unwanted behaviour, and every time you succeed in doing something positive.”
Mother agreed to try. She read all the recommended books, kept journals in which she recorded all her thoughts, and dutifully underlined the negative ones with a red pencil. She learned to anticipate situations that fired up her surgical reflex, and searched for strategies that might alter either the stimulus or the response. These efforts did help for a while, Father admitted, but just as she would show real improvement, something made her relapse. After a year of repeated progress and regression, Mother decided the old ways were after all the best, telling Father she loathed Dr. Nobliss for saying we are animals: “We are certainly more than animals!” She also insisted punishments were more effective than rewards. As proof, there was Father, by then trained so well that he nodded his head in agreement, any thoughts he once entertained of escaping buried so deep he rarely revisited them.
The way I’m describing it, you’d probably think Mother is a vicious maniac. It’s not true. Mother is complex. She has feelings for us, and has always been a little remorseful after completing her eviscerations. That’s why the end of a family meeting was accompanied by servings of her famous three-bean salad, a reward, so to speak, for us taking our punishment. As rewards go, it wasn’t half-bad. In fact, it was quite tasty, the secret being Mother’s homemade miso dressing. We would instantly devour her salad, not only because we liked it a lot, but also because its appearance meant the meeting was truly over.
One day, however, after a particularly brutal family meeting, we left our salads untouched. There we sat at the kitchen table, like heaps of rubble after a devastating explosion. Eventually, Father uttered his fateful sentence: “You know kids, this is a terrible thing to say, but there are days when I wish your mother were not with us.”
That’s all it took. Turns out each of us had experienced the same furtive thought, the kind, which, when it surfaces to mind, you immediately try disown because it’s so monstrous. Father’s little slip allowed the thought to lie there in the open, exposed, its strangeness gradually fading the more we held it in our gaze. It was then we made the decision, without weighing its rightness or wrongness, to murder Mother.
With the premise established, what remained was for us was to devise the plot. We agreed right away that however we proceeded, the murder would have to be perfect. Mother would demand no less if she were in on the project. With that in mind, we began exploring different ways to kill her. While this allowed us to test our resourcefulness, we soon realized that without criteria for what counted as a perfect murder, these imaginings, no matter how creative, were pointless.
Thus began a prolonged debate over what makes a murder perfect. It would have to be neat, we concurred, because neatness is high on Mother’s scale of values. This immediately eliminated all the bludgeoning, hacking, and stabbing scenarios we had considered. “Parsley,” Jolly offered, “Mother would insist on it being parsley.” This baffling interjection made sense only when I realized Jolly had misunderstood the word “parsimony”. Indeed, Mother did prefer actions to be simple and expeditious, which ruled out the elaborate electrocution scheme Father had devised.
On and on we went, looking at the subject from every conceivable angle. It’d have to be aesthetically pleasing. Not overly dramatic, because this was something Mother hated. As painless as humanly possible, of course. It was when we came to the criterion typically regarded as the necessary condition for a perfect murder that we encountered a seemingly intractable conceptual difficulty. We acknowledged the view that a perfect murder involved not being caught, either because murder is not presumed, or because the murderer is not suspected. However, what if we did a sloppy job of murdering Mother, but those charged with investigating her death through their own ineptitude missed the obvious clues? This was a genuine predicament. If no one knew a murder was committed, or that we were the perpetrators, we would have to rely on our own judgment about whether it was perfectly executed. And, as Mother had shown us time and again, our judgments were fallible.
It was at this point, when finally it dawned on her we were contemplating an illegal act, that Jolly mutinied. “You’re both of you misogynists,” she screamed, using a word whose meaning she clearly did know. “Listen to yourselves, planning on killing a woman just because she criticizes you. Your own wife!” she said to Father. Your own mother!” she said to me.
The way Father’s glasses were performing a crazy dance on his nose made me realize it was up to me to deal with Jolly’s sudden revolt. I reminded her she was in on the discussion to start with. Did that make her a misogynist?
“But I came to my senses, didn’t I?” she replied. “Now, I’m going to tell Mother.”
“What do you think Mother will do when you tell her?”
“Why, she’ll go to the police, I expect.” With this Jolly stood up and readied herself to play her fated thorny role.
I saw my opening. “Don’t you think she will first call a family meeting to tell us how disappointed she is in us? Disappointed that we couldn’t get our act together. And whom do you think she’ll blame for this failure? Aren’t you the one destroying the consensus we’d achieved?”
Jolly pondered the argument. Her shoulders drooped as she sat back down. Father sighed. The plan was on again. However, we still had to resolve the conceptual problem. There was no way around it, we finally concluded, a third party was essential, an outside witness to verify the murder was perfect. Unfortunately, there were some obvious difficulties with this deduction. First, where would we find a witness prepared to assess the excellence of our lethal exploit? Second, and more fatal to the venture, if there were a witness, by definition the murder wouldn’t be perfect, because that person could potentially disclose both the crime and the criminals. Unless the witness was in turn perfectly murdered. Needless to say, this would lead to a hopeless regress.
Surprisingly, the recently unenthusiastic Jolly was the first to offer a solution. “We don’t need a person to witness the murder. God sees all and He will be our witness.” While her logic was impeccable, Father and I were pretty certain if God did exist, He would see no perfection in murder. Jolly conceded the point, though not before reproaching us for the tentativeness with which we held our religious beliefs.
After this slight detour, it came to us all at once that a remedy to the spectator dilemma was there all along. Mother would be a witness to her own murder, and if she judged the act perfect, and if the act went undetected, we could be satisfied its execution was flawless. Yet how could we be sure Mother would find our chosen method faultless? Was there a way of soliciting her opinion on the subject beforehand, without revealing our plans to her? I know this is going to sound like bragging, but I was the one who came up with the brilliant answer. We would have to find some pretext to involve Mother in discussions about the best murder mystery ever written, in hopes that her literary criticism would provide us the outline of a perfect plot.
From this simple idea arose the most magnificent summer in family memory. Mother needed no convincing of the undertaking because I suggested it as a competition over who could come up with the finest analysis of the genre. We decided to divide the field along national lines. Mother chose to read classic English mystery novels, and was especially partial to Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, maintaining women authors had a more refined sense of what it was to be wicked. Moreover, they plotted their murders with a delicateness unavailable to men. We saw no reason to disagree with her on these points. Father went Canadian because he thought their murders would be more wholesome, and that this would give us ideas about a decent end for Mother. He was definitely wrong about the wholesome part. Jolly chose Scandinavian noir, having been told it was what cool high schoolers read. She’s a slow reader, and only managed to finish one book the whole summer, which was a good thing. We all agreed the setting was so depressing that it was a wonder more people didn’t kill each other in Scandinavia. I stuck with American writers, because I figured it was more likely their murders would involve a gun. I had never shot a gun, but relished the idea. It is after all the American way.
In remarkably short order, our routine was upended. Family meetings gave way to rambling book club discussions where we probed the finer points of homicide. Mother allowed Jolly and me to miss more and more of our music lessons to the point that, as the summer days began shortening, we were able to stop attending entirely without reproach. Father spent almost no time in the garage, and he and Mother started teasing each other. One evening I heard an unfamiliar noise downstairs, only to discover Mother and Father in an embrace, swaying to music from the radio. Without intending it, we were becoming what I believed a normal family was like. As this happened, thoughts of murder, which had brought the three of us conspirators together, were slowly extinguished. With the resumption of school in the fall, Father, Jolly and I determined that circumstances had changed, and so must our plans. Murder was off the table.
Because of my running club training that afternoon, I came home late from school the day the first snow fell. It was dark outside and inside, except for the kitchen, where Mother sat at the table eating. She motioned me in and pushed a plate of three-bean salad towards my chair. “You’re late,” she said, beaming. “Father and Jolly have already eaten.”
Our conversation at first was about trivial matters. The more she talked, the happier Mother seemed to get. In fact, I don’t think I had ever seen her so happy. Little by little, she got around to reminiscing about our literary exercise. “Andrew,” she said, “I really have to thank you for the idea. I can’t remember when I’ve had such fun. There is one thing, though. The way you posed the question was wrong, I’ve concluded.”
“How so?” I asked, my throat oddly hoarse.
“Well, the focus of our discussions was how to commit the perfect murder. At some point I realized it’s not the method that’s important, it’s the motive. Look at it this way. What reasons do people have for committing murder? Revenge. Hatred. Gain. Ridding yourself of an obstacle, a competitor, a person who causes you pain. Maybe you do it for pleasure, if you’re a psychopath. If you examine them, these are all selfish reasons. Selfishness is tawdry,” Mother was emphatic about this last point.
“You know,” she paused for a moment, “it’s a wonder you’ve never thought of murdering me. I know I am cruel to you all at times, so you’d have had reasons for wanting to do away with me. No matter. You didn’t. Instead, you gave me a gift, for which I will be eternally grateful. “
I braced myself to stand, but for some reason the strength to do so eluded me.
“Your gift? Our summer seminar. Without it, I never would have been able to see that the perfect murder is one not motivated by personal gain. To murder just to be able to do it in a perfect manner is what makes for a perfect murder.”
I felt myself slowly sliding off my chair and under the table, and not by my own volition. I tried to speak but could only gurgle.
“Poor dear. I know, you’re still consumed by questions of method. If you must know, I soaked some castor beans in water and let them ferment. Voilà!” The word she liked using when feeling particularly triumphant. “Ricin. The perfect condiment because a little goes a long way.”
“Oh that,” she said, following my eyes to her own plate. “Store-bought. Listen, honey, I can’t stay and talk any longer. I have to drop by my parents’ house because I promised them leftovers. You know how mom likes to go to bed early these days. I want to make sure she gets a taste of my salad before then. And if I have time, I want to call on an old doctor I used to see.
They say it’s my running that saved me. Something about enhanced metabolism. Unfortunately, Father and Jolly weren’t so lucky. Which I guess tells you pretty much everything you need to know about video games and social media: they never prepare you for the really tough stuff life throws at you. I do visit Mother from time to time at the psychiatric prison. The insanity plea was readily accepted, though I myself don’t believe she’s insane. The more I’ve thought about it, everything she’d said about the perfect murder was eminently sensible. Not that it helps her where she is now. If anything, her present circumstances are driving her crazy. They make her do art therapy, and art is something she was never any good at. You can imagine how that’s tearing her up. The times I see her, it’s exactly what you would expect—a constant stream of complaints. I listen because I still am her son. But just as important, she’s my witness. When the opportunity arises, I relate my most recent adventures, and she is compelled to admit I have succeeded where she had failed. At least she takes comfort from knowing she’s raised a perfect son after all, which is something to take pride in.
Here, now, I’ve been monopolizing the conversation all this time. I apologize. You’d be right to say I’m hardly being a perfect host. I hope at least you like the meal. I’ve adjusted Mother’s dressing to bring out more of the umami flavour. Isn’t it just the best salad you’ve ever eaten?