In the middle of the river that separates Cedar Rapids, Iowa east from west, there’s a swirl of turbulent water that is known as the deep eddy. “Stay away from the deep eddy,” my mother said, and for a long time I misheard and thought she was talking about a man, someone nicknamed Deep Eddie. Maybe she knew him or maybe she didn’t, maybe he was real or maybe he was just a story, but he was someone to be feared, someone who knew her, or he knew me, he had his eye on us, he was just waiting for the right circumstance, when I was alone and not paying attention. If I let my guard down then he would seize that moment to show up. “What’s your name?” he’d ask. Me, an Alice in my red dress with the puffy sleeves and white eyelet pinafore, lacy anklets, black Mary Janes that looked to my eye like I was wearing beetles on my feet. Me, lost in a daydream, scuffing along the sidewalk in grass-stained sneakers and pink shorts. Or maybe it was winter and I was in my parka and my snowpants and my boots.
I wouldn’t tell him my name, but he would tell me his. “Eddie,” he’d say, with a smile that revealed the glimmer of his teeth. Edward. Ted. Quick snicker of his tongue. He might be handsome, like Mr. Fawcett next door who knew how to laugh and had blue eyes and a deep cleft in his chin that made him look like a movie star.
Deep Eddie would be friendly, too. He’d seem to know just what to say to break the ice. He might have gum or ice cream or a flower or a toy. He would tell me that my mother had sent him to come and get me, that there’d been an accident, some kind of an emergency and I was to get into his car—”Right now! Hurry!” But I’d been warned, and I knew better. So I would ask him: “Who are you?” And he would smile, he would lean toward me, reach for my wrist and say: “Deep Eddie.” Who else?
Deep Eddie was the man our mothers warned us about, the one who drove around in his big finned car with candy in his pockets, the one who rolled down his window to ask for directions, who lurked in the shadows of the alley, who leered from a bus bench, who was naked under his overcoat, who grabbed little girls and carried them away and… what? Ate them?
Then, maybe it was when I was still just a kid, or maybe it was years later, I was told or I began to understand that the deep eddy wasn’t a man at all, it was just this place at the bottom of the river, a swirl of water that was sucked by gravity down into a pelvic hollow in the limestone foundation that is the bony substructure underlying the famous corn-growing Iowa loam. Unpredictable and dangerous and strong, the deep eddy could wrap its icy fingers around your ankles, pull you under, drag you down. Missing, lost, gone forever, drowned.
Later still I would connect that same vortex with insanity and higher consciousness and LSD. There was that bloody drain at the base of the bathtub in the “Psycho” shower. There was the swirling spiral of chaos in “Repulsion.” The rabbit hole entry into Wonderland. And the brain-boggling psychedelic light show of an intergalactic whirlpool at the end of “2001, A Space Odyssey,” in the mind-bending outer reaches of Jupiter that allowed the astronaut to evolve to a new level of consciousness, from bone-throwing ape to lead-footed spaceman, from star-seeker to divine human, a higher form of being—a baby born with its eyes wide open! Get it? Open, its eyes are open! Where then we saw through a glass darkly, now we see face to face… Now our eyes are open! Far fucking out!
The first time I took acid was in the dead of winter, 1970, on the south side of Chicago where I was in my freshman year of college, and we’d trooped through snowdrifts to an apartment in one of the famous old Gothic buildings on the Midway. I don’t know who lived there, just that there were seven or eight of us together that night, and we were drinking orange juice—because the vitamin C was supposed to further enhance the hallucinations—and we were all of us smoking cigarettes, nervously, as we waited for the trip to come on. On the floor in the middle of the room there was an old film can that we were using as an ashtray, and as the hours wore on, it filled up with butts, and then someone said, “That’s God’s butt!” Which was hilarious. And then someone else said, “No, it’s God’s belly button!” Which was profound. I tried to explain. God’s belly button was the deep eddy. It was that swirl of ice and of fog at the end of the world in Poe’s “Pym.” It was the eye of a cyclone, the innards of the very same tornado that sucked Dorothy up out of Kansas, into the ether, and then dropped her back down again in the trippy far out Technicolor world of wondrous Oz. Oz, the acid king. Awes. The awe… Face to face with the divine.
Your brain short circuits. Your self burns up. Your body explodes. It’s just too huge, too awesome, it blinds you, it kills you, it completely and forever blows your mind. Or so they say.
“Stay away from the deep eddy,” my mother said, but there I am again. This time it’s summer, July 1970, and I’m fully dosed on Sunshine. I’m sitting on a bus bench and I’m laughing, though I can’t remember why. I have one hand on my face, palm to cheek, and my mouth is open, I’m howling, this is SO funny! It gets me in the gut. I want to share it, “Did you hear that? Do you get it?” But I can’t talk because my mouth is already open and I can’t close it, it’s open and opening, wider and wider, a yawn and then that gap between what is my hand and what is my face, the boundary between them is gone and they are one and they are all and I am one and all. I am the whole, the hole, the deep eddy, and it is into this, myself, that I am feeling myself fall.
First I thought that I was going to die. And then I thought that I was already dead. “I’m dying! I’m dead! Am I dead?” But there were people there with me, my sister, my boyfriend, and they held me and they talked to me and they convinced me otherwise, so I didn’t, and I wasn’t, and I’m not.
Almost thirty years later, in the early winter of 1999, my mother bends to pick up the newspaper, loses her balance, falls and breaks her hip. My sister calls me, and I get a seat on the next plane home. Mom has been taken to Mercy Hospital, which is down on 10th Street and 8th Avenue, adjacent to the neighborhood that was called, when I lived in Cedar Rapids, “N____town.” Or Colored Town, if you were being polite about it. Or The Ghetto if you were a cop. Or Oak Hill if you wanted to get technical. About ten square blocks of dilapidated shantytown contained within sharply defined boundaries on all four sides—the sprawl of the hospital, two cemeteries, the railroad tracks, and the dense woods of Van Vecheten park.
Since the Recession of the mid-80’s the innards of Oak Hill have spilled out into the surrounding neighborhoods, and those tidy borders have been blurred. The small Episcopal church, St. John’s—where my parents were married and my grandparents were eulogized, where I was christened and later confirmed and, later still, married—has been sold off to some other congregation because, my mother explains, the ladies of St. John’s are afraid to go alone into that part of town any more. Even on a Sunday morning, in the bright light of day. There have been gang shootings and drug arrests there. Murders and muggings and robberies and fires. My aunt tells me she drives the long way around when she has to go downtown. My mother warns me, don’t drive down 4th Avenue, it’s not like it used to be, it isn’t safe. But from the window of this hospital room I can see the whole area, and although some of the houses are shabby and many of the front lawns are a mess, still the streets are empty and quiet, and it looks peaceful enough to me.
They can’t replace my mother’s broken hip because she has emphysema, and surgery would be dangerous. So they’ve put a steel pin in it instead, and now she’s here in bed, hooked up to oxygen, afraid to even try to get up again.
This is February, and it’s bitter cold outside. Still, the hospital room is so small and close—my mother is sleeping and the woman in the next bed has been moaning all afternoon—so I go outside for fresh air. At the top of the hill across the street from where I’m standing sits McKinley Junior High school—a blocky brick and mortar building that is an identical twin to Franklin Junior High, where I went, on the other side of First Avenue, the northeast side of town.
There, on the street just below McKinley, a small white building is being bulldozed to the ground. The battered marquee has already been dismantled and thrown into a pile of other junk near a chain link fence: “RAMZA’S.” Stamping my feet and hugging myself in the cold, I watch as the roof collapses, the windows shatter, the walls tilt and fall slowly inward on themselves.
Back up in the room my mother is awake, but she’s cranky and who can blame her. Her face is grey, her eyes dull. She asks me where I’ve been. “Just outside for a bit.” Which makes her frown and scold—”It’s too cold to be outside, why would you go outside at a time like this?” I tell her I was watching a building being demolished, and just to make conversation, to direct her attention away from me, or from herself, or from the situation, I go on: “Remember that old beauty shop over there? They’ve torn it down.”
“It was an eyesore anyway.”
We both know the story. Ramza Abodeely was married to a chiropractor, Dr. Thomas Sturgeon, and her cousin was Joe Abodeely, the jazz drummer, the night club owner, the abortionist. He owned The Tender Trap, the Sip’n’Stir, and the Unique Motel.
“Your father used to go to those places. Prostitutes and strippers.” If not for that tube feeding oxygen into her nose, she would have snorted her disgust. “And remember that girl, what was her name? She was in your class, I think.”
“Paula. She was a year behind me. In Lloyd’s class.”
“She was murdered.”
I know this story, too. Paula Oberbroeckling, the leggy girl with the long blond hair. The girl who went missing when she was 18, in the summer of 1970. The one whose body was dumped down near the deep eddy and whose carcass was found five months later, by a pair of brothers out for an afternoon walk.
“Now that’s a story you could write,” my mother, my best reader, tells me. She’s smiling now. Her eyes brighten, lit with expectation as she imagines the pages I’ll create for her. “A real mystery. Yes, now that’s a story that would get me up out of bed.”
In 2005, my mother succumbed to her emphysema, but I still had not written that novel, hadn’t even tried. Because once I’d read the police file, I didn’t see the point. Why further confabulate a brutally true story that’s already flush with nuance and detail? Why force fictional certainty into a reality that in all its contradictions and complexity remains so maddeningly unresolved? Instead, I would spend the next ten years poring over the file, putting it away and coming back to it again, clipping old newspaper articles, discussing it with anyone who would listen, talking to Paula’s family and friends, interviewing detectives, drawing maps, generating timelines, collecting related paraphernalia, creating scrapbooks and notebooks, writing letters and emails, concocting scenarios and building storyboards, ultimately packing a closet full of boxes and files, always believing that if I could just get my hands on that one last magical piece of the story, then everything else would, with beautiful simplicity, fall naturally into place.
Plenty of the people that I talked to thought they knew what had happened to Paula Oberbroeckling, but really all they knew for sure was what they’d heard and mostly all they’d heard was rumor and gossip, stories spread through casual conversations, and so the more I read, the more I listened, and the more I tried to put the pieces of the puzzle together, the more puzzling it all became. Every answer seemed to only raise another question, challenging all logic and common sense, obscuring what should have been a straightforward story in such clouds of uncertainty and doubt that everyone involved—the boyfriends, the roommate, the sister, the mother, even Paula herself—came to seem suspect in some way.