the haunting

Yesterday I had an email from a friend who just finished reading The Boy. She said she’d stayed up late, googling photos of Robert Raymond Cook. Don’t! I told her. He’s looking for people to haunt. I was only half-joking. I was forewarned about the possibility of a haunting. When I met Jack Pecover, author of an earlier book on the Cook case, it was clear to me that he was not and will likely never be free of his quest for justice for Robert Raymond Cook. He told me that Alan Hustak, author of a book about the last hangings in every province in Canada, shared his conviction that RRC was wrongfully convicted and that the two of them had discussed pursuing a posthumous pardon for young Cook. Just recently, I heard from Aaron Coates, who wrote the play “End of the Rope” about RRC, that for him this is a story that keeps on wanting to live.
When I met with Doreen Scott, head nurse on the ward where RRC was committed for psychiatric assessment before his trial, she told me she was sure Robert Cook was speaking to me from the grave. I laughed that off, said he might be speaking to me, but it was no more than obsession of the same kind that took hold of me when I wrote fiction. That the ghost of RRC didn’t hold any greater sway over me than the fictional character, Louise, who had set the story in motion when she began whispering in my ear long before I revisited the tragic story of the Cook family. In retrospect, I know that my obsession with the Cook story was far more significant than any obsession I’ve had with fiction. Herein lies the problem when a writer of fiction turns her hand to non-fiction. The tendency, in fact the joy, of stealing and embellishing story from real life that is an artful challenge in fiction becomes an ethical dilemma in non-fiction.

Was I haunted during the writing of The Boy? Yes, indeed,I was. Am I still in the clutches of Cook’s ghost? No. I’ve spent many months granting myself release from the story. In fact, it was not Robert Raymond Cook who haunted me. It was Daisy Mae Cook, his stepmother, mother to the five small children murdered as well. And Daisy was a gentler ghost than RRC. One of my greatest struggles in writing the Cook family story was in avoiding fictionalizing their lives. Daisy remains an enigma—since the publication of The Boy several people have come forward with conflicting portraits of her. But I will leave her for good with my one lapse into imagining:

(excerpted from The Boy, Oolichan Books, 2011)
Daisy, splashed by a blood-red setting sun, leans into the window. The air in the kitchen is soupy, not even the sigh of a breeze.
She lifts a corner of waxed paper covering the plate of sandwiches, pokes at a crust of bread. Mustard has dried marigold yellow on a protruding grey bologna tongue. She re-wraps, and presses the plate to the counter. Too late for the fridge? Lock the barn door when the horse is dead?
“Mommy?”
Kathy, cheeks flushed, kitty-cat pyjamas twisted, droops in the doorway between kitchen and bedrooms. Then Linda toddles to her sister’s side, blanket trailing, thumb corked between her lips. Daisy huffs the fringe of hair off her forehead. “Back to bed, babies!”
“Thirsty!” Kathy’s toes click on the linoleum. From the living room, the voices of her brothers are muzzled by the heat. “Bobby here?” she asks.
“Not yet.” Daisy scoops one pudgy girl onto each bare arm. She waltzes slow around the kitchen, sets the fly paper spinning. Then swoops over the grey arborite table. Linda’s diaper snags on the chrome edge. Daisy lifts, then bops her around the table, one damp print at each place. Deposits her finally on Daddy’s spot. Shifts Kathy to sit beside her baby sister. Lifting the corners of her apron, she fans a breeze for two flushed, up-turned faces. Reminds herself to take off the tatty apron. Berates herself that she cares. Touches her hair, self-consciously. Relives the plucking of a coarse strand of white from the red this morning. And feels that sting all over again.
From the living room, the opening music to 77 Sunset Strip snaps its fingers. Daisy winks at Kathy. “Kookie, Kookie, lend me your comb!” she sings, tickles her fingers through the little girl’s hair. “Turn it down!” she calls to the boys. “Your dad will be here any minute.” Ray can’t stand the show. Kookie too much like Bobby, she thinks. So why isn’t Kookie in jail? And where is Ray? Where is Bobby, now that he’s been sprung?
Then loud voices in the garage, sharp as the edge of a shovel, the scuff of feet, the hard bark of a laugh, scrape of the door as it opens into the kitchen. Ray and Bobby, husband and stepson, drag the smell of grease and garbage into Daisy’s kitchen. She encircles the little girls, and calls the boys from the living room.

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