Stories In the Mud: Small Town Crime and Memory

STORIES IN THE MUD

I was born in a place where the collective memory will never forget about a train careening off a bridge and drowing in the bed of the muddy river. Nor will the collective ever forget the serial killer their children fell victim to or the two boys murdered by a Sunday school teacher.

Even from the murkiest depths of the river those faces still torment me. I was young when I moved away from here years ago, the faces never left me. They show up at different times and places, though I’ve always felt them strongest on the “old bridge” over the Atchafalaya, the one connecting Morgan City to Berwick and all beyond. On the rare occasion I visit my hometown but miss the exit for the “new bridge”—the one preferred by most drivers familiar with the area—I’m forced to take the old bridge into town.

Driving across the vast brown water of the Atchafalaya on a bridge dressed in generations of disrepair is but one of my many phobias. Doing so always conjures frightening reminders from my childhood. They are nightmares both physical and imagined, my amygdala having marked few divisions between what my subconscious percieves as true and what my body experiences as real.

I’d heard the rumors. I knew the history of the bridge and this parish. People still whispered things about the derailed passenger train that’d been haunting Morgan City for over eighty years. My grandmother had even told the tale a time or two. Who could forget that the weather was bad that day or how fast the train advanced as it came shooting down the tracks, chug-a-chug-chugging towards a bridge that hadn’t closed? And what about the way it crashed head first into the murky waters, or that it sank with unnerving ease and was never recovered?

It’s an uneasiness I can’t help but tease; an anguish I find cathartic.

A small error was all it took for the Atchafalaya to swallow up a train full of people. This is all it takes for anybody to slide into neverending blackness, the kind where no one is ever found or heard from again.

Except in the mud.

When I was 17, I used to go skinny dipping with friends in a pond not far from the Atchafalaya River. I ended up having sex with a guy out there one day, near the lip of the water, while a group of Nutria Rats splashed about nearby. I couldn’t help but think about those forgotten people back in my hometown. Images of their faces peering out of the train’s windows—their moment of awareness—flashed in rapid succession every time I tried looking at the guy I was with. They troubled me, those faces in the mud. They were witnesses without eyes. What had they seen? Had they borne witness to the serial killer that preyed upon teenagers back in 1978, the same killer who ended a town’s sense of safety? They must have.

The land is always a witness, and the history of tragedy is always the struggle of a place.

Old newspaper clipping

Did they see what he did to the first girl after he abducted her from a parking lot? Did they see where he took her when he finished?

And did she join the faces in the mud?

Morgan City is place where people are born with the memories of tragedies, but few recall those who suffered. Like the girl I’m talking about now. Everyone “knows” that to this day one victim remains missing because her body was never found, but remarkably few know it’s actually two bodies that were never found.Two girls who vanished decades ago.

Two daughters. Two bodies. Five victims. One serial killer. The land remembers. There is no other way.

Some memories cling to you, like mud on a youthful body. Others stay with you like grease on the palms of a roughneck at the end of a long day.

Like blood. Like memories. Is there a difference?

“Oh I have no doubt that he’d killed before. . . these were not the first.”

D. A., retired detective

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