Such A Nice Couple

published August 16, 2014

The first day was murder.

We don’t get a lot of those around here. Murders are big city problems. We’re a small community without admirers. No one comes here to visit, but everyone who lives here likes the quiet. We’re dull in a good way I guess. Crime, when it comes, is of a type and manner that would make for horribly boring television.

I’m a photographer for the Police Department. I spend most of my days taking what I think of as the world’s most mind-numbing still lifes. Close ups of factory made windows. Floor plans for the dullest apartments and houses. I’m there to document a crime, but most times a detailed drawing would work as well. The investigators simply need to know where the hell everything was.

It was just a miserable coincidence that a person killed someone my first day on the job.

It was a real mess too. An older couple, Mattie and Jon Groff, who had been together for years, went nuts on each other one night. Nobody knows why. Other than Mattie and her lawyer. I can’t remember what they plead it out too. She went to jail at 61 is all I remember. A life sentence really at that age, even if it wasn’t cold-blooded murder in the end.

They were known around town for being that kind of couple. Always screaming at each other in public. Always a little tipsy.

  • Friday nights drunk at Stanley’s Bar.
  • Weekdays stumbling around street fairs.
  • Singing loudly with gin breath in church.

But still, everyone was surprised. They made big scenes all over town, but they never hurt each other until that night.

I used to take piano lessons from Jon.

He was cranky as hell, but didn’t poke student’s hands with pencils or make you sit with a broomstick tied to your back or any of that other crazy shit piano teachers do if they’re jerks. He wasn’t a jerk. A grouch, absolutely, but he cared about the music and his students I think.

He drank during lessons, but most parents never noticed. Only a few of us kids realized he was getting boozed up. But he was a happy drunk. Confrontational, but happy and seemed more passionate about the music the more he drank.

“This is Saturday morning cartoons you’re playing!”

“But this is on the cartoons.”

“Well play it like you hear it then, not like you’re goddam Bugs Bunny!”

He didn’t make a lot of sense, but I don’t know. I remember him as a good teacher. I wonder if he’d been the survivor if I’d remember things differently. I don’t think so.

Mattie was nice too. They were only horrible to each other.

She worked at the post office. A letter carrier. She knew everyone on site and not just by the names on electric bills. She was nice to dogs, even the ones who barked at her everyday. She wouldn’t take tips from everyone at Christmas. She always took our card, but I saw her so many times hand one back to our neighbors as if she didn’t accept them from anyone. The Cartwrights were always just scraping by. Nice people. I always assumed that’s why Mattie behaved that way.

I saw her drink on the job too. Not as much or as often as Jon, but they must have been pretty high-functioning drunks for years.

The day it happened I had to take pictures of Mattie too at the crime scene. I’ve had to take pictures like that my whole career, almost always domestic violence cases. Even the bar fights don’t usually involve taking pictures of someone in as rough a shape as Mattie was that day. But strangely she was in handcuffs and numbly void to the world around her. She had cuts to her arms and face. Bruises starting to show already too. She was the very first thing I photographed before I went inside the house. If I’d stopped right there I would have wanted to know who did such a horrible thing to her.

Inside was, well: murder.

Jon wasn’t cut. He was tenderized. She used an empty gin bottle that refused to break and functioned in that way like a lead pipe. It was on the floor beside him and so red it took me a full minute of photographing it to realize what it was.

We’re a small, quiet town though. To this day. I’ve been shooting crimes scenes for over a decade now and it never got as rough as that first night. I still can’t believe it. None of us can.

They were, you know, such a nice couple.