Murder in Hell’s Gorge
By Steven Cuffari
Hell’s Gorge was a great place once. I remember the winding ride down the mountainside to get to the center of town. It was beautiful. How we used to ritually go to town for ice cream on the first day of spring. The sun reflecting off the chrome of my mother’s red, beat-up old Jaguar. In the summer, she kept the roof open. I loved that. Summers were perfect. They always had the perfect amount of heat. I remember the autumn leaves in the wind scraping down the street. Our winters were cold and snowy, but never painfully so.
Hell’s Gorge was the place to be. The schools were good and the people were kind. But that all changed one day and I still don’t know the exact reason why. It’s more of a mystery to me than it is to whoever might read this one day. All I can do is tell how it was back then. I don’t understand this place anymore. I am still here. But I hope not for long. I don’t know what I’m doing here.
Hell’s Gorge was once a place where you could raise your kid. I always thought that’s why my mom moved us here. She told me that my father had died and we needed to start over far away. But it never felt like starting over. Life in Hell’s Gorge was smooth and easy. It was a mountainous country paradise.
Hell’s Gorge was home. But it was more than that. It was a safe space. It was a clean place. I don’t remember much of what happened in my life before we lived in Hell’s Gorge, but I do remember my mother always being happy. I was always happy too. There was a dark cloud over our lives before Hell’s Gorge. Not only was the death of my father something I never truly understood, even to this day, it was also supposed to be something that my mother was too sad to talk about.
There is a sort of fog around my memories from those days before Hell’s Gorge and our early days there. My memories become very clear by the time I was 12 years old. Even then, everything seemed perfect. I had a lot of friends. The neighbors were almost all like family. There was no crime. Not even petty crime. I guess it is always possible that our small town had always been secretive. Perhaps my memories were protected by the very townspeople who were keeping those secrets. I never have been a conspiracy theorist or one to believe much without evidence. But it’s always possible. And at this point highly likely.
Speaking of beliefs, you would never believe that our small town even had a church, since the vast majority of our limited population never attended. Even on the big holidays. Hell’s Gorge was for all intents and purposes, an atheistic community. With a name like Hell’s Gorge, you might be tempted to think the opposite. But I swear it’s true.
Another strange thing I remember about Hell’s Gorge is that it was oddly advanced and progressive for such an isolated town. The geography surrounding the center of town and the residential areas that circled up the mountainsides around it was extremely isolated. The only traffic in and out were occasional tractor trailers that provided the vast majority of what the town needed. And it seemed like we had everything we needed. I don’t claim to understand exactly how our little town worked, but it seemed that we produced enough at home to have near to 100 percent employment and everything else was easily and affordably shipped in.
No one in Hell’s Gorge spoke about money. Of course, there were all the necessary conversations about the subject, but no one ever dwelled on it. Don’t get me wrong, capitalism was alive and well in Hell’s Gorge. But somehow, we never seemed to suffer the stereotypical problems of capitalism.
By the time I was 18, I had already had two jobs of my own. When I was about 10 or 11, I used to help our neighbors with their gardens as an assistant. Many of our closest neighbors were getting on in their years, so there was a lot of work to be had. I did that for at least a couple of years. When I was about 14 or so, I started working in a diner that served primarily hamburgers. I was the delivery boy. I did that until I was 17. I was known as Jackie, the hamburger kid.
In my last year of high school, I quit that job. I had earned enough to finish school and either take a year off when I turned 18 or head off to college. I had my pick of several colleges and universities, even a few in Europe. My mother wasn’t the kind of mother to hold me back, but I could feel that she would be lonely if I left. She never even hinted at it, but she couldn’t hide it. I guess in some ways, her true emotions were the only thing that she couldn’t hide.
In that year that I turned 18. That last year of high school, I didn’t know what to do. The world was a vast mystery, a world where anything was possible. Anything could happen. I felt that Hell’s Gorge was too idyllic. It was too peaceful. Too calm. Too predictable. Until that point, I could barely remember ever even having had a bad day, let alone a traumatic experience. Looking back to how I was then, I honestly believed that Hell’s Gorge was a utopia.
Late that summer–I was an August-born summer baby–I had my birthday, and I made my decision. High school was already a distant memory, barely two months behind me, and my mother held back tears as I told her I would go to New York University in September.
“Blow out your candle, darling,” she said. I blew out the single red candle on our traditional Hostess chocolate cupcake and gave her half. It was another one of our things. We had many of them. Most of them were nothing I would remember. But those birthdays alone with my mother were ours. Of course we celebrated events and holidays with our friends and neighbors, but it was often just us. It seemed then like a perfect balance of private and public life.
When I left Hell’s Gorge, I always knew I would come back. Even if it was just to visit, I never expected that Hell’s Gorge wouldn’t be a part of my life in some way. It would always be home. I traveled back there at least twice a year until my the end of my junior year at NYU. That year had been a tough one for me. After three years in New York, I was not in a good place. NYU was a stifling mess of a place to be. The teachers were all full of shit and played favorites in a way I would never have expected from a school with such a good reputation. New York itself was no picnic, but I had curated a group of friends that made it all possible. I had been working as a bartender in Midtown, and that was also no picnic. I didn’t understand how I could work so hard for so little money. I expected bartending in New York to be easy and lucrative. Instead, it was grinding, humiliating and hardly seemed worth the money. It did pay the rent though. I was rarely ever hungry. And it fit my schedule. So there were reasons to stay. But spiritually, it drained me.
That year began a three-year stint during which I rarely thought about Hell’s Gorge let alone go back to visit. I was completely caught up in my life in New York. I thought only about my mother and called her about once a month. But Hell’s Gorge was too far away and too boring to take up my time. I was beginning to feel at home in New York despite its challenges. That year I quit NYU, and I must admit I did it in an emphatic way. Long story short, I came to class still drunk from a Friday night out that stretched into Monday. That weekend, I had decided to tell my least favorite professor to fuck off on the last day of classes and give in my transfer paperwork. I was going to Hunter College for my last year. The emphatic part was that I pissed in the garbage can next to his desk before I walked out. It was a puerile thing to do, but I did it. I had to pay for it, and it was worth every penny at the time.
In those three years that followed, I knew less and less about Hell’s Gorge and what was going on there. It ceased to be a conversation I had with my mother. We spoke only about ourselves somehow. A new fog developed in my mind, this time around the part where my thoughts, feelings and memories of Hell’s Gorge were stored. Hell’s Gorge was still there, just hidden. My thoughts were focused on the girl I was dating, the job that I secretly hated, my friends in the English department and the constant feeling that I had to do more. New York was a sickness in me, one that cut me off from my only family. A sickness that put physical and emotional distance between me and the place I was raised. It was a sickness that made me jealous, ambitious and callous. I didn’t know it at the time. At the time, I believed I was an artist. I believed that being an artist, a writer was all I needed to worry about. The relationships, the people, the communities, they were all secondary. Hell’s Gorge had been a soft place, a perfect place. It seemingly had none of the vice and corruption of NYC. That dirtiness was now I what I loved about it. When I finally let the city sink its feeding tubes in my skin, it infected me like a virus. I couldn’t think about anything else but success in New York City.
Until one morning I got a call to the dusty landline in my shared apartment in Brooklyn. I reflexively jumped to grab the phone, something leftover in me from growing up with a landline in Hell’s Gorge. As I said hello, I wondered who the hell would be calling me on a landline. The person on the other end of the call asked me if I was John Pettis, and I said I was.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” the person said, with true sorrow in her voice. “But your mother has died.”
Then the fog in my brain that had been hiding Hell’s Gorge cleared up almost immediately. I now recognized the voice of the person who had just relayed the most horrifying news I could receive. It was Kristina Sands. My obsession with NYC drained from my veins. The infection was over for the time being.
“I’ll be on the next plane there,” I said. We said goodbye and hung up. I opened my laptop, found the next flight out of JFK. I packed a small backpack with a spare outfit, my toothbrush and toothpaste. I was going back to Hell’s Gorge, and I knew that I wouldn’t need to bring anything else. After all, Hell’s Gorge was a great place.
Hell’s Gorge had been named after Johan Hellerman, a German immigrant who discovered the gorge, who is known to have made a fortune in logging there. It is known that over the centuries, the town had had various incarnations: a wellness resort, a hunting ground, a summer getaway and a military outpost, just to name a few. Almost none of that remains. By the time I was a pre-teen, the Hellerman name had all but disappeared as well. I had never known there to be a Hellerman anywhere in Hell’s Gorge. The only two things that bore his name when I lived there were the town itself and a stone factory from around 1945, Hell’s Headstones. Even the actual gorge was no longer there. The stream that ran through the mountainsides had dried up two hundred years ago.
Hell’s Gorge had always been a difficult place to get in or out of. On the day I learned of my mother’s death, I was headed there by plane to the nearest city, Plato, where I would take a rental car down the winding, gorgeous, tree-lined mountainside to the center of Hell’s Gorge.
Historically, Hell’s Gorge had always done well. Ever since that first German immigrant. Despite its remoteness, it was a fruitful place. A great place. It was also a distinctly banal place. When I was growing up there, it was almost as if there were no culture. Hell’s Gorge didn’t have a People. There were community events, people in relationships, families that went back generations. But there was always a sense that things would change. Hell’s Gorge was remote, boring and soft, but it was always changing.
Now that I look back, I can understand why I hated History class so much as a child in Hell’s Gorge. It was never about Hell’s Gorge. Everything we knew about Hell’s Gorge came by word of mouth. Maybe that has something to do with what happened there. What is probably still happening there.
Another strange thing about Hell’s Gorge growing up was that it had very little tourists. We had very little to see, of course, but that wasn’t the strange thing. Historically, it was supposed to have been a huge attraction for nearby cities. When I was a kid, it was rare to see stranger other than a truck driver. It seemed that even the government didn’t interfere with Hell’s Gorge. Looking back, I know this is not possible. But today if you mention Hell’s Gorge in most cities nearby, they will think you made up the name.
When I arrived in Plato Airport, the information center had nothing on Hell’s Gorge and the staff claimed they didn’t know the name. I asked other travelers which highway to take and no one could tell me. I easily looked it up on my phone later, but something compelled me to ask around before I headed out. I had been away for almost exactly three years and for some reason I didn’t know what to expect. I had images of the Hell’s Gorge from my youth flooding into my mind. But I couldn’t trust them. When I finally got into the rental car and looked up my old address on my phone, I was happy to see that everything seemed up-to-date. I clicked on the image that popped up next to my mother’s house and smiled at the Christmas decorations on display. I remembered why I was there and stopped smiling. The photo looked recent and I wasn’t able to think happy thoughts, so I closed the image and followed my phone’s directions to get out of Plato toward Hell’s Gorge.
The road to Hell’s Gorge was dull and gray. It had the same feeling you might get rolling through the suburbs of Northern New Jersey. Strip malls and gas stations as far as the eye could see. It was hard to believe that the area around Hell’s Gorge was so typical. Even when I was growing up, any excursion out of town made me feel like the world was moving without us. This was always such a weird feeling, because Hell’s Gorge had everything any other town had. Sometimes even more. Of course, we moved slightly slower than bigger places like Plato, an actual city. But we always caught up. There was something else that made us different, and even to this day, I couldn’t say exactly what it was. As I drove the two hours from Plato to the mountainous edge of Hell’s Gorge, I noticed that there were no signs for it. There were signs for all the cities in the area both large and small, but nothing for Hell’s Gorge. But that didn’t matter, once I got to those outskirts, I knew where I was. It all came back to me in reels of memories. The happy nights out drinking with friends. The drinking age in Hell’s Gorge never seemed to be an issue. The food. You might be tempted to think that we stuck the basics since we were such an out of the way place. But we had everything. Somehow Hell’s Gorge brought in food from Asia, Africa, America, Europe. We didn’t have many restaurants, but those that we did have served a global selection of food I have never even seen in NYC. My mother’s personal favorite was an amazing Szechuan-style spicy chicken. Memories of my first kiss. My graduation ceremony. Those days and nights just my mom and me. She was my only family then. She’s my only family now, even though she is gone.
I went into auto-pilot mode as I turned down that first twisting road toward my past. It was already getting dark around 5pm. The road seemed darker than I remembered it being at this time of year. It was early November. Halloween had come and gone, but the houses close to the road still glowed with the orange of jack o’lanterns. Growing up we didn’t celebrate Halloween, or many of the holidays with much fervor, but the traditions were there. It was almost as if we did it because everyone else did. We always had a good time of course. It was just that it felt paper-thin. I was surprised by that jack o’lantern light on the mountainsides, but I also wasn’t surprised. I knew that some things had to have changed, but I hoped for some reason that most of it hadn’t. How much could a town change in three years?
The last time I was here, my mother picked me up at the train station in town. That’s how we did it all those years I had been visiting regularly. The train line had three stops. One in the center of Hell’s Gorge, one in the southern part of the surrounding mountains and a third one near the airport in a slightly larger town called New Scotsland.
She drove us up the mountainside to her house, the house where I grew up. It was the complete opposite drive I was doing now. We spoke about school, and I told her all my worries. She smiled in her typical sad way and told me that everything would be alright. She said, “The Lord will provide.”
It was a shock to me then and it still shocked me then as I remembered it. It still shocks me to this day, but I have somewhat of an understanding of what happened in Hell’s Gorge and what that had to do with my mother. It is still not completely clear, but the connections are there, however blurry they might be.
Her seemingly religious faith almost instantaneously disappeared. “You will figure it all out, my son,” she continued. “That’s all I meant.” I never heard a religious word from her mouth again. And she was right, I would figure it out and I did. I chose not to return to Hell’s Gorge unless it was the end of the world. That’s how I figured it out. Although I spoke to my mother regularly, I wasn’t sure what was going on with her. She seemed fine and never complained. Maybe if I had gone to see her face-to-face I would have known more.
As I remembered it, I was always the one complaining. Telling her my problems. I never once thought she might have any. I remember asking myself how stupid could I have been? Although I never left Hell’s Gorge because of my mother or because Hell’s Gorge was a bad place to be. As I’ve said, it was a great place to be. Looking back now, I think I made the right decision, except the part about leaving my mother behind.
As I drew closer to my mother’s house, I passed by houses of old friends, Jimmy the Turk, Jimmy the Mic, Ashley, Sandra. And of course, Kristina. Kristina Sands. The same girl I believed to have given me the terrible news about my mother. As I thought of her, I realized she hadn’t told me what my mother died of.
I was surprised that I didn’t think of it before. And as I pulled up in the driveway, I got the feeling that she was not dead. That none of this was real. I stopped the car, got my bag and walked up the stairs to the front door. The house was like it had been as long as I could remember. I half expected there to be Halloween decorations. My mother, like most of the town growing up, wasn’t interested in all the fanfare of the holidays. They were always just an excuse to be together. It was a no frills version of the holidays.
What surprised me even more was when I tried to enter the house, the door was locked. I never even considered that it would be, and I actually hit my forehead against the door trying to go in. I brought nothing with me but a change of clothes and my toothbrush, so I either had to break in to my own house or figure something else out. The back door was just as locked as the front. It wasn’t too late to go to the morgue to see my mother. I had to go there anyway to get things started for her burial. I had to find out how she died. I had to find out if they had her keys.
Kristina was my first… my first a lot of things. She was also my first love. She wasn’t in my life for long, but in the time that she was she made an impact. She lived on the same side of the mountain as we did when I was growing up. For about a year, my mother picked her up on the way to junior high school since her parents both worked early. We were 12 years old if I remember correctly, but it wasn’t until the end of that year that we got involved. We never went out or dated or had any kind of boyfriend-girlfriend relationship. We… just… were… In our brief time together, she was able to capture my heart. The way we parted ways was less than ideal and involved a lot of spite and vitriol. To this day I don’t know what it had all been about. For a long time I simply thought she was an asshole and wrong about everything. She made it clear to me that we had nothing between us. She had my heart and then broke it for seemingly no reason.
On the day that I went to the morgue to see my mother, I didn’t doubt that Kristina had had her reasons. I didn’t hold anything against her. I was over it by then. Now I wish I had never gone to that morgue. Things might have turned out differently. If that was her on the phone, then she might still be at the morgue, I thought.
When I showed up, the place was as you would expect. Bland, official and somewhat dark. I imagined the coroner to be a short, bent man with a lazy eye. I couldn’t have been more wrong. There was no one at the front desk when I came in. I called out, but heard no response. I called out again, moving closer to the doors just beyond the desk. This time I thought I heard someone call back. Since I had no other choices but to go in or wait, and I decided that I needed to get it over with.
I followed the voice I heard through the doors of the morgue. I felt like I was passing into the underworld. I shouted, hello, again and heard someone shout back. It sounded like someone was in distress, so I quickened my pace. The doors on the right were all closed and marked Examination Room then a number. The doors on the left offices that had people’s names on them. Some were open, others closed. There were enough lights and devices switched on that I thought that there must have been someone working. A pot of coffee just finished brewing in one of the open offices. I heard the voice again, this time it sounded like laughing. I saw one of the doors open and felt the voices was coming from there. It turned into multiple voices. When I reached the door, I could see through the crack that it was Kristina. I froze. Her face was still young, but different. You could tell she had aged. It immediately occured to me that I too had aged, but ever since I had arrived there in Hell’s Gorge, I had been imagining myself as a younger version of myself. The spell broke when I saw her face. She looked happy. For some reason I felt happier because of it, but it didn’t last long. She finally caught sight of me through the crack and gasped slightly.
“What the hell?” I heard her say angrily. I recognized that anger after all these years. I stepped back, away from the door. She was fixing her blouse, tucking it into her pants when she came out. She closed the door quickly behind her, making sure that whoever was in there would not be seen. I deliberately averted my eyes. I didn’t want it to seen that I cared about who was in there. I didn’t. I was there to take care of my mother. As Kristina stood in front of me for those few milliseconds fixing her shirt I thought she had recognized me. I took my time studying her face.
“You shouldn’t be back here,” she said. “Can I help you? Please this way.” She guided me by the arm without even touching me. As I looked at her, she looked back at me. I could tell now that she hadn’t recognized me, but that she had recognized that I knew who she was. I thought that if she hadn’t left this town since we were kids, she wouldn’t have to think about it too long before she recognized me.
When we got to the front desk, she led me around to the front and she took a seat behind. “What can I do for you?” she asked, clearly still pondering who I was. I could see it in her forehead that she was working it out.
She still didn’t recognize me. I even told her that I was there for my mother Helga Pettis. At some point I thought that she was faking it. How could she not remember me? How could she not remember my mother?
“Oh,” she said, when I told her my mother’s name. “I’m so sorry for your loss.” I told her thank you and that I just needed to see her and get her things.
“Did she leave a set of keys behind?” I asked, confused about my own wording of that sentence. She died, and unless she committed suicide, she didn’t leave anything behind.
Kristina solemnly said yes and unlocked one of several small lockers behind her. She pulled out a plastic bag and a paper envelope. “I just need to see ID,” she said.
I showed her my New York driver’s license. She still didn’t recognized me. It was only until I emptied my mother’s keys from the envelope onto the front desk that she sat up straight and looked hard at my face. “Johnnie?” she asked. “Is that you?” She was the only one who ever called me Johnnie. It brought a strange smile to my face. “Why didn’t you say something?”
I told her I didn’t know what to say. It had been so long. “Wow,” she said. “I haven’t thought… I mean, the last time I saw you…”
“Wasn’t a great moment for either of us,” I finished for her.
“My god, I’m so sorry about your mother. I didn’t even realize it was her. I’m such an idiot. You know, things have changed around here. I don’t—”
Just then, a man came in through the doors behind the front desk.
“Bill, you remember Johnnie, don’t you?”
Bill stuck his hand out and cocked his head to the side, furling his brow.
“You might remember me as Jackie—”
“The pizza delivery guy! Pettis! Of course!”
I didn’t bother to correct him, that I was a hamburger delivery guy. He smiled and stared at me, surveying me from head to toe until he realized why I was there.
“I’m so sorry about your mother,” he offered.
Before I could respond, Kristina took over for him. “Bill, I’ve got this.” It seems that he knew his place, whatever that was. I was tired already despite it being before 5pm. Bill nodded gently and gave a sympathetic frown then left.
“Was it you who called me,” I asked.
“Yes. I have the shit job around here. There is nothing good about having to call people in their worst moments, being the one to tell them…”
I couldn’t help but laugh and ask her what could be good about working in a morgue at all? She gave me a look that I instinctually felt would be followed up by a scathing diatribe. Instead, she nodded, weighing the possibility of my comment. “Maybe so,” she said.
She let out a sigh of relief, and I realized I had put my foot in my mouth. She looked up at me and nodded slightly to her left, indicating that we should get to what I had come there to do.
In the morgue proper, Kristina showed me my mother’s body in that cold room. I told myself then and there that I would never forget it, but to this day, I am not sure what I saw in that room. It was definitely my mother, but looking back, I can only be filled with doubt as to what I had seen there. I wanted to cry. Instead I asked Kristina what happened to her.
“I’m sorry, John.” She looked down at the body. “I can’t speak officially, since I’m not the coroner. But from what it says on her file, I can tell you off the record that it looks like… it wasn’t an accident.”
The night I saw my mother’s corpse, I got the key from her belongings and spent the night in her house. Everything was as she had left it right before she died. The coroner’s report said her body was found in the woods just outside the center of town and that her chest had been caved in by extreme force.
I had a nightmare about Kristina not being herself but her own daughter, and that time had sped up in Hell’s Gorge to the point that generations had passed.
There had always been a sort of bubble around us. We Hell’s Gorgeans. When I asked Kristina what she thought happened, she simply said, “Your mother was murdered.” The weight of the concept of anyone wanting or needing to kill my mother was heavy, but nothing heavier than the weight of her being gone. Just gone. I couldn’t stay at my mother’s house, so I asked Kristina.