The South is a sea of unsophisticated proteins, northern Florida a regular
primordial stew. The heat alone makes one wonder how water-breathers could have
seen anything so promising on the nearby beach that they wanted to evolve their
asses up onto it. As a New Jersey high school punk I had been fully indoctrinated
into the evils of the South, with its Bible-thumpers, snake churches and inbred
psychosis. The Dead Kennedys had convinced me of Winnebago warriors and the
goons of Hazzard, and hell I was still traumatized by Andy Kaufman getting his
neck split open by a Tennessee wrestler. So when I moved to Gainesville in August
of 1991 to study fiction writing at the University of Florida, I had my guard
up and was ready to fend off any hints of backward southern living.
I arrived in Gainesville soon after the student murders, but before authorities
had a culprit to denounce. I had walked into a herd of wild filet mignon who
detect a slight hint of carnivore in the air they stir themselves not into hysteria
but a dull foreboding of what they consider their fate. Only evolution allows
us anxiety and a sense that we have a place in the universe that will be fulfilled
barring some goddamn bad luck. But in Jurassic Gainesville, we were back on
the food chain, and the predator was out there, so all we could do was hope
that we wouldn’t get caught limping by the water hole. I hung in the folds,
too new to the area to chance grazing the fields alone. Anything strange got
immediate attention from the press, but in Gainesville it was hard to find something
that was not strange. This was home of the Grand Poobah (whatever) of
the nation’s largest chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. This was a land void of manifest
destiny, where bugs of the most alien sort pretty much dictated whether you
got to finish your box of Kix or had to throw it out and let the larvae grow.
This was gator country. Not only had alligators managed to inhabit every natural
body of water in the area, but a local town had a gator horn they sounded when
an indigenous thirteen-foot bull made its monthly round through the town’s main
drive, the citizens cooped up in their trailers hoping they didn’t smell too
much like pork rinds. The University of Florida crew team practiced in a creek
that had the highest proportion of gators to water in the entire state, effectively
reducing the occurrences of the rowers tipping their shells. Gainesville was
in easy walking distance of at least four state penitentiaries. If you were
anything less than a sociopath, anything but stereotropic in heart and vision
and killer instinct, you were lunchmeat.
Still, we watched the news for any hope that our stalker in the high grass
had either been caught or moved upwind for something tastier. First the wrong
man confessed to the crimes after beating up his grandmother. Then a voice-driven
chronic schizophrenic set a rash of church fires. A five-foot lizard was loose
in town for a while, eating housepets. When the local media asked the University
of Florida animal labs if the lizard was theirs, they said they weren’t missing
any. (These were serious labs in 1991, UF held the world record for the largest
water buffalo born of embryo transplant.) The news held no hope that our killer
had moved on, and we dumb beasts still mulled about as if staying in herds made
a fuck of a difference.
Even when the real killer, Danny Rolling, was caught, the weirdness continued.
Alachua County wasn’t sure it could afford the trial and needed state funding.
At his arraignment, Danny, a budding country-western singer/songwriter and recently
engaged to Sondra London, got up and sang an original composition to his true
love in place of a statement in his own defense. The Florida Supreme Court later
passed a statute forbidding Danny, his fiancé or his brother from profiting
on the book Danny had written about his life and crimes. For this reason alone,
knowing that none of the guilty would see a cent from my purchase, did I eventually
read it an awful book, most disappointing in that Danny took a lame-ass way
out and blamed the murders on a demon named GEMINI. It may take a demon inside
you to bite off a victim’s nipple and take it home with you in a sandwich bag,
or saw off a head with a hunting knife and put it on display before you leave
a blood-stained bedroom, but don’t get cheap and blame everything on temporary
memory loss due to demonic possession. Despite this weirdness, the fact that
the killer had been caught gave off brief flashes of hope. It was a brief respite
back into the Age of Man, for Rolling had been tackled by Greek drama–he had
left his hubris dangling.
What doomed Danny Rolling in the end was his calling to music. While hiding
from police, Danny would find a dark area to camp out, build a fire and compose.
He sung of rape and brutality and biting off nipples, and at the end of one
tape he did a Johnny Cash and announced himself: “My name is Danny Rolling.”
This tape eventually got into the hands of police and it was played on the news
under a picture of dear, dear love-struck Danny in mid-croon to his Intended
in the courtroom. Even the sweetest of grannies would have lobbied to pull the
switch herself upon hearing the true face of that monster.
The killer caught and doomed to fry, the Floridian herds of lemming loosened
their tight circles and I felt safe to browse and find my own niche of living
with the oddities of this antediluvian culture. I ate lunch on campus every
day with the Hare Krishnas because I was too poor to afford anything but free
grub, and I was getting very good at Frisbee, which I did with the Hare Krishnas
too. It was a fine time for me as a writing student. I was in a land where material
was right there in the air before you–just reach out and pluck it. I was also
a true crime nut, and I was gutting my Time-Life series books as soon as they
got to me every other month. I fell madly in love with a woman who knew that
the first thing Jeffrey Dahmer ever ate of one of his victims was his biceps.
It was never my desire to get anywhere near the types of kooks I loved to read
about (I would have just as soon extended a cordial dinner invitation to that
sick fuck Charlie Manson and a few of his cohorts), but now that I was here,
I would have kicked myself later had I not gotten as much as possible out of
the unfortunate proximity.
I used to discuss the Rolling case regularly with my friend Kevin, an Alabama
poet, fellow student and general madman. But we didn’t discuss details so much
as rhapsodize on just how diseased a mutherfucker Danny Rolling was. We shared
details of the murders as they were released, reconstructed crime scenes (in
words, of course), but mostly we were trying to figure out why one break-in
would result in rape, murder and mutilation while another would end up in rape
alone, another in plain burglary. It’s too easy to envision serial killers as
these rampaging Rambos, shooting up movie sets on a regular cycle, by the moon
or abusive parents’ anniversary. But these organized killers live among the
docile with at best some remote sense of ickyness emanating from their neighbors
and peers, and certainly not enough for anyone to think there’s a nearby crawlspace
being loaded up with carcasses. Some killers are even considered pillars of
their communities, this while they’re luring co-eds to horrid fates on the sly.
Kevin and I wanted to understand Rolling’s compulsions, his desires and essences
that made his killing days as much as a part of him as putting his right leg
into his pants first or preferring pepperoni and black olives on his pizza.
Son of Sam picked a certain phenotype of female as the target of a shooting
spree. Ted Bundy also wanted a certain look to his women. Dahmer wanted men
he felt he would be able to control and fulfill his fantasies of love zombies
and shrines of immortality, and Richard Ramirez did whatever he damn well pleased.
Rolling also had some kind of plan, Kevin and I figured, however chaotic. Something
made a killing night deadly, and something else kept simple B & E fully
satisfying (let’s keep that demonic possession shit out of it). Figuring that
out seemed to be the essence of everything, and this is what Kevin and I were
trying to divine.
We read newspapers and watched TV for all the information our frying brains
could hold, but we also worked on our thesis through some major binge drinking.
A good, all-out drunk sometimes brought a kind of clarity intellectual discussion
couldn’t. We were also on a religious mission to get porcelained, inspired by
our artistic alcoholic icon, Peter O’Toole. The idea was to go on a good multiple-day
drunk, the only sleep taken during blackouts, until SNAP!–total sobriety. The
eyes glaze, the skin dews, and everything you need to know is lying there before
you wrapped in microwave-safe paper.
That was the theory at least, and we put it to the test at Kevin’s apartment
during Spring Break. We anticipated moments of mind-numbing revelation and profound
deliberation on Danny Rolling’s soul. But mostly it was chugging down Kash &
Karry brand banana liqueur (the cheapest booze available) and spending long
periods on the couch blissfully unaware of our current state of consciousness.
If one of us had an intuition, we’d follow it the best we could, but it usually
didn’t last long before it became drunken babble and we’d resume our unfocused
staring at the far wall, Marlene Deitrich playing on the CD player and the banana
liqueur wedged into the cracks between the cushions for easy access.
And then it was towards the end of our third day that Kevin had a flash–maybe
not revelation, but certainly inspiration.
“He was right out back here, man,” Kevin said, his eyes suddenly bright with
a Ginsu edge. “Let’s go find it, man, we gotta go find it Weems, right out back,
that’s where it was.”
What other response could there be but “No fucking way”? What a crock of shit.
Horse puckey. What a bucket of lard. I knew exactly what kind of cock and balls
story he was trying to push on me. “Rolling?” I said. “Like hell he bunked out
back of your complex.” Kevin had woods back there, a good place to camp out,
but why would Kevin only make the connection now?
So it was a blowjob of a lie, the kind that erupts rudely on your face. But
Kevin was on to something, and even if he was only in the height of sweet, sticky
liqueur delusion, the manic storm behind his glazed eyes were hard to deny.
We went out anyway.
There was a fire pit out there. That much is certain. An amphitheater of three
cinder blocks–one for Danny, one for his tape recorder, and the third? GEMINI
seat. That would be the one in the middle.
And that was the one Kevin planted himself at. A kind of calm came over him,
a kind of settling in. A kind of mental reclining. The block must not have been
too hard, not too soft, not too hot, not too cold. A real baby bear block.
“He was right fucking here, man,” Kevin said, his words chopped by incessant
giggles. “Right here man, he sat right here, singing his songs, man. Singing
his goddamn songs.” Kevin was as certain of this as he was certain of his own
As Kevin tried to evoke Rolling energy up through his ass, waving his hands
as if he could incite the dead fire before us, I took in a deep breath myself
and had a good look around me.
There were no lights out back of Kevin’s complex. Gainesville was a dark, featureless
cloud around me, teeming with alien bugs I had never seen up north. Even in
the dark, the very air seemed to wriggle with unyielding life. And all this
fucking heat. What creative energy! What total mindfuck! How could you come
to the place and not transform, de-evolve, mutate into something most
base? And when that sweet, treacherous kind of mutation takes place, what else
is there to do about it but throw your primal rage into a creative scream? If
you didn’t, you were sure to shrivel into a dehydrated yam in this heat. Kevin
had his poetry. Me, my stories. Others turned to thumping their bibles or amassing
hubcap sculptures outside their trailers. One of my neighbors had a hundred
gallon milk jugs in her front yard, filled with red-, white-, or blue-colored
liquid and arranged into the shape of the American flag. There was no avoiding
it without giving up the ghost completely. This was the secret behind the Southern
whoop, that cowboy hoot that’s done in seemingly random moments, out the windows
of the pick-up or when the bartender brings your new pitcher of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
The brain is boiling, boiling off those extraneous layers of evolution that
fooled us into this crazy idea that we have some hope of having one up on nature.
You are reduced to a soft-boiled egg of vulnerability, waiting to get chomped
by the next passing rodent down the pike, so what is there left to do but whoop
it up and declare to the heavens that, if you are going to be quashed like a
palmetto bug under the heel of a combat boot, you’re going to leave one hell
of a stain? While Kevin sat Danny Rolling and played air guitar and was maybe
even able to conjure some feeling of what it would be like to be on the lam,
a trail of rape and murder strung out behind him like beer cans following newlyweds,
I realized I had no clue about that kind of rage, the rage that makes mankind
slaughter mankind. But I did understand the need to sing about it afterwards.