I was propped in the corner of my high school library, waiting out the rest of the lunch hour, when the first tear darkened my much-creased copy of Robert Cormier’s After the First Death.
In the 1979 novel, a bus full of summer campers had just been attacked by terrorists, their world exploded and irrevocably altered. Beyond the brick walls of my school, the seaside tourist town of Mystic, Connecticut, was undergoing a similar transformation—news spread that grade school teacher Mrs. Leslie Buck had died under increasingly mysterious circumstances.
The day before, the morning after my junior prom, my mom broke the news to me when she lay the New London Day down on the kitchen table and looked up at me with watery eyes. She nodded toward the obituary spread out before her and the tears started flowing down her cheeks.
Mrs. Buck’s obituary stated that she “died suddenly,” using that kind of bland language such pieces use to mask something much darker, more violent. Another piece in that same paper stripped away the niceties: earlier that week, Mrs. Buck had been kidnapped and assaulted by Russell Kirby, a friend of her husband’s and the family’s handyman. She managed to escape, but her husband, Charles, found her at the bottom of the stairs a few days later. It soon emerged that Charles was having an affair with a local bartender. The pieces started to come together in a way that horrifyingly mimicked the plot of a Lifetime movie.
Dazed, my mom and headed to the grocery store as a kind of grab at normalcy. As I reached for a red pepper in the produce section, I heard the gray-haired woman on the other side of the onions tell her other gray-haired friend, “She’s in a better place now, at least.” Of course she was talking about Mrs. Buck. It’s a small town. I put the pepper down and started crying again and my mother hustled me into the parking lot, dinner forgotten.
I was silent in the car on the way home, clenching my fists until my nails—still painted pale prom pink—cut into my palms. The gray-haired woman’s words carouseled around my brain: “A better place.” A place better than alive? A place better than Dean’s Mill School, where she taught elementary school? Where she was known for her colorful collection of shoes; she always brought an extra so she could change her costume midday. A place somehow superior to the Mystic and Noank Library in downtown Mystic, a faux-neo-gothic structure that always smelled like rain and old books? I saw her for years in the parking lot after the third grade, and she always remembered my name.
I didn’t know if I believed in a place like that. A place where one could only go after she had fallen down the stairs. After she had bled out in her own home. After her life had been taken in a burst of fear and confusion. That night I scrawled in my journal, “Someone killed Mrs. Buck. What is wrong with God?”
I hadn’t had much experience with death at 17: just the loss of a cat, the expected death of a grandmother. I hadn’t yet had the experience of my life going off script, of one of the supporting characters suddenly blinking out, unannounced.
The library seemed the most natural place to hide that following Monday, as I was pretty anti-social and long ago had staked out a corner in the Young Adult section as my own—the corner where they kept the collected works of Robert Cormier, a pessimistic author who taught me that not all fiction for young people had to have heroes or happy endings.
Cormier was perhaps most famous for penning the 1974 novel The Chocolate War, which is about a teen who refuses to sell chocolate as part of a school fundraiser. Below the surface, it’s about violence and the dangers of conformity. Unsurprisingly, Cormier’s books—which dabbled in psychological torture, insanity and necrophilia—were often banned.
These books were not the most comforting fare, but they’ve always been there for me. They were there when I had my first brush with evil and loss in the corner of the school library, and they were there when Leslie Buck’s story reached its untidy conclusion.
My first New York apartment was depressing, to put in plainly: I slept on a mattress on the floor next to a milk crate where I kept my books, dust and debris rained down behind the walls at all hours like a macabre rainstick, and sometimes it seemed like my only friend was Garbage Cat, a skinny grey tabby who lived on my fire escape. I was unemployed and in the deepest of dumps when my mom emailed the New London Day article announcing that Charles Buck has been arrested for his wife’s murder.
Seven years had passed since my teacher was found dead at the bottom of her stairs, but I hadn’t stopped thinking about her. In grad school in Chicago, I became fixated on crime reporting and even considered staying in that city to cover the police beat. I hadn’t dealt with many more hardships than I had at 17, though, and it all seemed too much for me in the end. It was too hard to separate the people from the headlines.
As I read about Buck’s arrest, I felt like I was back at the table with my mom again—back at that grocery store, lost and confused. The majority of Mystic’s residents had been looking at Chuck askance since Mrs. Buck’s murder, and it didn’t help matters that he had a very distinctive white vintage convertible that he still tooled around in after his wife died. It was impossible to ignore that car. It was impossible to forget. Some of that old anger unfurled in my stomach—and it needed direction.
I had been pirating the Twilight books to ease my anxiety and depression, but thinking of Mrs. Buck and the white convertible made me remember my old friend Cormier. Despite not having any form of lucrative income at that point, I ordered a book I dimly remembered from my library corner: Cormier’s 1997 novel Tenderness.
It had been a long time since I had read anything resembling YA (English majors are snobs), so I was shocked at the bald horror of the book, which told the tale of a sociopathic teen named Eric Poole who methodically murders a succession of young girls, ending with Lori Cranston, who fixates on Poole after he’s released from a juvenile detention center, primed to kill again.
The novel wasn’t a parallel to what happened to Mrs. Buck, but it struck a chord that continued to vibrate for years: just because we love someone doesn’t mean they can’t hurt us. Destroy us.Just because we love someone doesn’t mean they can’t hurt us. Destroy us.
I thought of Mrs. Buck sitting next to her husband in his distinctive car; I saw her in profile in my mind, her white teeth and freckled nose. I remembered her hands cutting red construction paper for a project. I saw her outside the library, squinting in the sun, asking if I still did karate with my mom and my sister.
And as I went back to Eric Poole and his string of dead girls, I comforted myself with the thought that Mr. Buck had been arrested. That, at the very least, we might find out what happened. That some justice might be served—because that’s the way it goes, right? In the end, the bad guys pay.
In the book, though, Lori Cranston drowned. And in real life, Charles Buck was acquitted.
I was on my third glass of red wine at my childhood friend’s wedding when I heard Charles Buck’s name again. A friend I hadn’t seen in years leaned across her chicken, cupped her pregnant belly and asked, “Did you see that Mr. Buck was on Dr. Phil?” I didn’t have a TV. I watched Netflix in bed in my studio apartment while my cat, Edie, attacked my arm. And I had never seen Dr. Phil.
I looked up the clip when I got home. There was Mr. Buck and his former mistress under that harsh talk show lighting with dramatic music pulsing underneath. After the woman ticked off the list of things “Charlie” had bought for her, the screen flashed to an image of the mistress sitting in the Bucks’ distinctive white convertible. My stomach lurched. I knew from journalism school and just basic common sense that a person is innocent until proven guilty, but I had always thought Charlie had done it. I still do. The motive was there. The evidence.
The show then cut to Charlie and the mistress sitting on stage with Phil, my teacher’s face plastered behind them on a massive scrim. All that wine threatened to come right back up. I couldn’t watch the rest. It was too surreal. I was back in my old bedroom, and Mrs. Buck was still dead—but now she belonged to the glassy-eyed daytime crowd, feeding on lurid titillation. They didn’t know about her shoes. They didn’t know about how she always remembered my name.
When I got back to New York, I ordered yet another Cormier book with an air of ritual. My milk crate of books was now a shelf, full to bursting. It was his final book it turned out—released just one year before Mrs. Buck’s death—The Rag and Bone Shop. In it, Cormier introduces us to Jason Dorrant, a 12-year-old boy accused of killing a young girl. An ace interrogator takes the case, grinding the boy down until Jason isn’t sure if he killed the girl or not. Wracked with confusion, he decides to kill a school bully and fulfill his destiny.
The book left me feeling much like I still do about Mrs. Buck and her death. You never really find out if Jason killed the girl and I never really found out what happened to my teacher. I can tell myself that she was murdered, but there’s really no comfort in that. I can believe in that better place the woman at the grocery store talked about, but that doesn’t make me feel any better about the act.
There was no comfort, either, when Mr. Buck died soon after his segment on Dr. Phil aired. Ironically, he died from complications of a fall at home. While a darker side of me may have found that be poetic justice, the more rational side knew that it didn’t make Mrs. Buck any less gone. And it didn’t erase what had come before.There’s bleakness in the world. There’s evil. And it doesn’t stop when we turn to the final page.
While Robert Cormier may have introduced to me a world that doesn’t make sense through carefully constructed tales of chocolate wars and charming sociopaths, my teacher’s death just confirmed that fact without all the thrilling fanfare. There’s bleakness in the world. There’s evil. And it doesn’t stop when we turn to the final page.
I don’t want to leave you with that thought, though. This is not a Cormier novel, after all. It’s a life we have to keep living as if it’s not just a cautionary tale. So I want to do here what so many true crime documentaries and horror movies do not: I want to remember the person we lost. The person Mrs. Buck was. I won’t say “victim” because once you apply that label it never peels off.
She was bright and she was kind. She left an indelible mark on our community— not just because of how she died but who she was. She read books and loved her shoes and there was so much of her I didn’t get to know because I was too young. She may be gone now and we may never know why, but I feel like I owe it to her—her memory—to remember the light.