It was a warm, humid evening when I knocked on the door of my aunt’s aluminum-sided duplex. The plan was for me to stay the night with her and her husband, a fellow bartender at a French-American social club where they worked, and then attend a picnic the following day, where my other aunt and additional relatives in the area would come out. Sue quickly answered the door. She looked at me like I was a ghost. She was an extremely thin and slight woman, shorter than I. Tears quickly formed as she pulled me in for a hug much stronger than her build suggested possible. She then introduced me to her husband and her daughter, my cousin, who had a six-month-old infant in her arms. While I couldn’t immediately see the family resemblance with Sue, it was clear in my cousin, who was not far from my own age. She looked like she could be my sister.
Sue spoke of her brother in loving terms, talked about his energy, that he was a great guy. She and the family called him Allen, not Paul, after his middle name, which is my own middle name. Allen had played the guitar and made some music. He liked to draw. She was very positive. Still, it didn’t take long for a profound alienation to set in. They were completely welcoming and friendly in every respect, but Sue’s looks awry, which I’m sure were a result of Allen’s face in my own, were chilling. I represented a dead man, a man I never knew. And their house had a creepy austerity to it: a little too much space with everything a little too perfectly arranged. For my part, I really didn’t know what to say. The simple, inescapable reality of the situation was that they were complete strangers to me, yet Sue felt like I was not a stranger to her. It was a cruel sort of dynamic, as inevitable as it was difficult to know how to act. I also sensed they resented Mom for not staying in touch and thus excluding me from their lives. But they kept this to themselves, for the most part, only hinting at the idea in tonal shifts when talking about her, mentioning that things didn’t have to play out as they had after Paul’s death. I could empathize with their feelings, but I couldn’t have them talking bad about Mom. Paul, after all, had made his choice, and his choice was not us. I knew he was young, not far from my own age at the time, but it still counted.
In this context, amidst faded newspaper articles saved by Paul’s then-deceased mother, my grandmother, and a Rand McNally atlas to provide some level of geographical orientation, the actual details of my father’s murder, such as were known, were finally explained.
In the beginning, there was only Paul’s body, discovered by campers who had pulled into a turnout along Highway 411, near Vonore in Monroe County, Tennessee, between Knoxville and Chattanooga. The campers were just making a quick pit stop, but once they got out of their car, they smelled something wretchedly foul. They went into a dense thicket of kudzu vines—a rapidly growing weed with sharp, serrated leaves—and found Paul’s decomposing body. It was a gruesome sight. Aside from the gunshot wounds, which had badly mutilated his face, he was naked from the waist down, and the animals and insects had gotten to him. There was no ID, so it took a couple of weeks to identify Paul, this only after sending his fingerprints to Washington, D.C., where he was in their database due to his time in prison. The body belonged to the owner of an abandoned Plymouth Barracuda about twenty miles away. Since the car had Georgia plates, both the Georgia and Tennessee bureaus of investigation became involved. The initial hypothesis was that Paul’s car had broken down and he’d been walking to the nearest town to get help when something happened. They suspected it might have been a robbery, since his wallet was missing—but, then, so were his pants. That and the contents of car, which were not detailed in the newspaper articles, was all they had. Their forensic work also placed the date of death: the night of August 13, 1975. Paul was twenty-five.
For two years the murder remained a mystery. According to the family, it was also one the local authorities didn’t have much interest in solving. Paul was characterized as a “hippie drifter” by the local papers. As Sue explained, and Mom had also mentioned in Leadville, hippie types in the South at that time were treated not much better than blacks. It didn’t help that Paul was an ex-convict. Sue, when she spoke of his time in prison, was still bitterly angry about what she viewed as an unfair punishment for his crime, which had happened when he was seventeen. He’d gone to the drive-in restaurant where he worked to rob the register. It was dark and he figured no one was there. Turned out his boss was there, so when he broke the window with a brick to get in, he was charged and convicted for armed robbery and assault with a deadly weapon. Several years later, however, Paul’s mother wouldn’t accept the authorities’ lackadaisical attitude toward her son’s murder. She regularly pushed the federal, state, and local bureaucracies—including trips to Cleveland, Tennessee (southwest of Knoxville), and Atlanta—to solve the crime.
A break occurred in 1977, when a man from a small town not far from where Paul’s body had been found approached police after he’d been picked up for dealing weed. To help improve the terms of his inevitable incarceration on that separate matter, Bobby Sylvester confessed to the local sheriff that he had witnessed Paul’s murder. According to accounts in the press, the killers had already presumed Sylvester’s revelations, threatening him and his family, which provided extra motivation for Sylvester to “nark.” Most of the story told about Paul’s final night is based on Sylvester’s testimony at the trial.
There were five young men, all white. They’d been partying and getting loaded when they came across Paul hitchhiking along Route 411. There were three men in the front seat and two in the back of the 1955 Chevy. Paul got in the back. He sat in the middle, between the two other passengers, Sylvester and Hardy Kirkland. After a couple of miles, Harold Phillips, who was sitting in the front seat along with Mike Bright, produced a buck knife and waved it at Paul in the backseat, explaining that they intended to rob him. They drove for about five or six miles. Steven Bivens, the driver, then pulled over into a small picnic area near a turnout. Bivens, Phillips, and Kirkland got out and told Paul to do the same. Paul did, but then he immediately started running for his life. Kirkland and Phillips chased Paul down, tackling and subduing him at the edge of a kudzu outgrowth about sixty feet away. Bivens also ran over. The witness Sylvester said that he and Bright stayed in the car the whole time, so his was a distant vantage point. There was some discussion that Sylvester couldn’t hear. Bivens started punching Paul in the face repeatedly. Then, while Phillips and Kirkland held Paul down, Bivens came back over to the Chevy and grabbed a .38 pistol, which had been hidden under the driver’s side seat. He walked back over to the struggling hitchhiker. Then, while Kirkland and Phillips held Paul down, Bivens shot him three times, point-blank, in the face. They dragged Paul’s now lifeless body deep into the patch of kudzu. They stripped him down to everything except his orange mesh shirt and a zodiac ring, in the hopes that the wild animals and August heat would dispose of his body quickly, which it almost did. When they got back to the car, the murderers told Sylvester to keep his mouth shut or the same fate would befall him.
Bivens and his accomplices, who all lived a small town called Ball Play, denied the charges of first-degree murder while perpetrating an armed robbery. There were significant age differences between all involved when the crime happened: Kirkland and Phillips, like Paul, were in their mid-twenties; Bivens and Bright were in their late teens; and Sylvester, the witness, was just sixteen. In the newspaper articles about the trial, which began in 1979, Bivens is characterized as a belligerent man, who spoke sarcastically during the proceedings, peppering his declarations of innocence with vivid details of the murder, his drug preferences, and the great sum of money they’d gotten off Paul (spent on drugs, of course). He spoke as though he was joking—mocking the patently ludicrous allegations against him—but his tirades rang true to the evidence and testimony against him and his buddies. Bivens’s father was apparently a big shot in town, said Sue, and his murder trial was somewhat sensational and not something his father wanted to see. Many of Paul’s family members drove up from Alabama to Tennessee during the trial to witness the proceedings and give a human face to the crime. As the trial played out, the family felt there was an unspoken subtext, suggesting the thought of young Bivens going to prison for killing some ex-con hippie lowlife was unacceptable, even if he did do it. And there were unconfirmed rumors that Paul himself had been running drugs across state lines around the South. The last time his siblings saw Paul alive, he had a large amount of cash in his wallet. When asked where he was heading off to, Paul was evasive, saying he wasn’t sure. He might even end up in California, he said.
The trial ended with a hung jury, mostly due to the questionable reliability of the witness. There was also little substantiating evidence—no weapon had been recovered—and the accused had alibis, though those were somewhat loose. One of Paul’s brothers actually brought a pistol with him to the verdict, planning to shoot Bivens dead in the courtroom if he got off, but the result of a hung jury wasn’t so black and white: it would be retried. Before there was a retrial, however, Bivens’s lawyer plea-bargained for the charges to be dropped down to second-degree murder in exchange for a guilty plea (Bivens had been picked up again for stealing a pickup truck and carrying a weapon). The district attorney wanted life imprisonment, but he felt like the case wasn’t strong enough—his key witness was now in prison, having been picked up again on drug charges—and he had no reason to believe a second trial would go much better than the first. It was agreed and Bivens was given ten years, though Bivens himself maintained his innocence, joking that, anyway, he could use a vacation. Kirkland and Phillips, the men who held Paul down while he was shot, were given five-year suspended sentences. In the end, I understand that Bivens only served five years in prison for the roadside execution of my father, and his accomplices merely had to deal with probation.
I only have the newspaper articles and the stories from Sue and other family members to confirm all this. Any court records are likely long gone, or at least would require a trip to Tennessee to dig them up, but I’ve never been. In fact, I haven’t even been back to Alabama for a visit since we left in 1972. I want to, I mean to, I just don’t make it happen. Sure, I’d like to know more about Paul, more about his family. More about what happened and why. But what would that give me? More loaded stories? Longer stories? Better, well-rounded stories—or just the opposite? Anyway, stories are no substitute. It will not replace what is missing. What will always be missing.
With a very sad, tentative manner, Sue paused as she came to one of the final pages among the pile of aging newspapers on the Rand McNally maps for Tennessee. She was silent but I could sense pure hatred. She turned the page. That’s the man who murdered your daddy, she said. The newspaper, dated January 9, 1980, had a blurry photo of Bivens taken just after he was sentenced and being led from the courtroom. He’s staring viciously into the camera, his eyes bulging, big, full of hatred. His handcuff-restrained finger is saying fuck you. It was a disturbing photo to see. And not just because I was looking into the eyes of the man who had blown my father’s face off. It took me a couple of moments to figure out what else I was seeing. Then it dawned on me: in expression and physique, Bivens bore a creepy resemblance to the man who would take Paul’s place and raise me as his own son.
Did I ever tell you about my buddy Zero? Man, he was a little off-kilter—and a Vietnam vet. Shit, it seemed like our entire military forces from Vietnam, except for the POWs, were living up in Topanga in those days. And a lot of them were damn near out of their minds, going crazy on booze or drugs or chicks. Zero lived with me for a while up in the tent. He had nowhere to go and no money, so I said sure when he asked if he could crash with me for a couple of days. It ended up being a lot more than a couple of days—but I didn’t mind. It could get pretty lonely up there sometimes. Zero would always be telling me crazy stories about killing people in the war, about villagers pushing their terrified daughters on them in the hopes that they wouldn’t kill them. Lots of sick fucking shit. He once told me how they had been stranded in the jungle and ran out of water. They came across a village where a bunch of soldiers had been killed and one of the dead guy’s helmets was off, having collected a bunch of water from the rain. Zero, dying of thirst, just drank it even though it was full of the guy’s brains. He didn’t care. For him, living in the mountains in L.A. was sort of a “transitional period,” I guess. From total fucking madness to the edge of civilization. I guess I’m lucky I was a junky when I was a teenager—–never had to see any of that shit. They said I was unfit to serve. Back then, they didn’t have rehab or anything like that, so they just sent you to the insane asylum if you had an addiction problem. But at least I didn’t have to see any of that shit in Vietnam. Man, some of Zero’s stories were too much, even for me. Sometimes he would just sit there and stare at something, then he’d start singing and look at me with the eyes of a fucking lunatic. And he would get these blackouts—I’d find him just laying face-first in the dirt. But he was a good guy. He was just having a hard time readjusting to the everyday kind of bullshit in the U.S. Man, I remember this one time a monsoon-style storm scared the living shit out of us. I’m telling ya—it came out of nowhere. One second we were making a campfire to cook some food, the next second this massive downpour comes on us. It was insane. Then we noticed that part of the embankment near us was beginning to wash away, and I’m like, “Fuck, Zero, we gotta get out of here!” The only way out really was down this gorge with a creek bed that was normally dry, but when I looked down it already had something of a small river going down it, full of mud and branches and shit. So I grabbed my bag—I didn’t know where the hell Zero was at this point—and started going down the gorge, and that river was rising—I mean you could seeit, like filling up a bathtub with a fire hose. I called for Zero, but I’m like fuck it, he’s been in the jungle, he can handle himself, and I waded as fast as I could. By the time I got down near the boulevard I was up to my waist in muddy rainwater, and it just kept coming down. Mudslides were happening all around, a couple nearly burying me. It was downright fucking apocalyptic. When I got to the boulevard, the creek, which runs right along the road all the way to the ocean, was overflowing onto the road, tearing away clumps of pavement. I waited around for Zero, calling him, but after a few minutes I was just too soaked and miserable, so I decided to go over to the General Store there in the village and call a girl I knew and ask to stay with her. A couple of days later I still hadn’t heard from Zero. I went back to my camp and the tent was still there, though the backside was dangling over the edge of the embankment. I was beginning to think Zero was a fucking goner. I figured he got washed out into the Pacific or something. He finally showed up a few months later, saying he’d decided to go up north for a while. I’m like, “So you decided that right that fucking second, you crazy fuck?” and he’s, “Yeah, it was as good a time as any, man.”