Winner Of The 2014 Pinch Literary Award In Nonfiction - Also Appearing In Issue 35.1 Spring 2015
The futon was cheaply made. The faux-brass knobs accenting its armrests were loose, and its lacquered wood finish had begun to chip away. Its metal ribcage pushed through a thin white futon mattress, kneading my back while I slept at night. In the morning, I would wake to the slightest stench of mildew from the cushioning by my head. Lying there, I wondered if he, too, had been bothered by the smell.
Beside the futon, I kept his alarm clock. It was made of white plastic and had a black face framing red blinking numbers. In the kitchen were his table and chairs. They were a pale wood, likely a maple. I assumed he must have used them every once and a while. Maybe just as I would, alone in the morning, pouring myself cereal, staring at the wall molding.
The TV, I am certain he used, flipping through channels until he found his favorite, the stock show. That was what was on the morning the killing took place, at least if you rely on court testimony. In my apartment it sat above his VCR on a metal rack from Bed Bath & Beyond that my mother had bought for me when she came to visit and was worried that I had nothing of my own in my new place. She had also bought a Target standing lamp, but it was his white lamp that I plugged in near the front door. When I got home at night after work and flipped the switch, it was his light that exposed my home to me.
Robert Durst is not a murderer, legally speaking. He is a billion-dollar real estate heir who in 2000 went missing from his New York apartment. He arrived in Galveston some time later disguised, albeit poorly, as a mute woman named Dorothy Ciner. Rather than talk, they say, he would write down messages on a piece of paper. He rented a studio apartment from a tall German named Klaus and lived quietly on the island for almost a year.
Then one September afternoon in 2001, a father and son were fishing in Galveston Bay when they happened upon the dismembered torso of a man in a garbage bag. In those same waters, police later found five black plastic bags containing a .22-caliber automatic pistol, the plastic cover for a bow saw, and two human arms and legs wrapped in old copies of the Galveston County Daily News. The newspapers had Durst’s address on the mailing label. Nine days later, Durst was arrested for the murder of his 61-year-old neighbor, Morris Black.
Police claimed Durst had been living in Galveston, Texas, disguised as a woman, while hiding out from officers in California who wanted to question him about another murder: the shooting of his best friend Susan Berman on Christmas Eve of 2000. Before she was killed, Berman had been about to talk to police regarding the mysterious disappearance of Durst’s wife, Kathie, 23 years earlier. But today Durst cannot be called a murderer. In fact my calling his futon a murderer’s futon is quite possibly slander, at least if we are speaking legally. Still, that is what I called it. My murderer’s futon.
I moved to Galveston from Florida in 2003, three years after Durst had arrived. Galveston is an island south of Houston that was once nicknamed the Wall Street of the South, though these days it’s better known as one of three things: a cheap beach resort, the name of a Glen Campbell song, or the site of one of the deadliest natural disasters in United States history. On a September day in 1900, a Category 4 hurricane rose from the ocean and smothered thirty miles of roads, houses, and shops that were Galveston Island. When the hurricane’s waves retreated, it left close to 8,000 dead bodies and flat lands where mansions once held stay. The island never regained its charm. And that feeling of misplaced regality, a hint of death, was still palpable when I moved there. A friend of mine, a poet, came to visit me once and said she could taste ghosts in the air. Sensible people said nonsensical things like this all the time in Galveston.
I moved there for the job. After graduating from college, I had decided that all I really wanted was to be a newspaper reporter. My first try was with a weekly paper on a small island in Florida, a place where everyone drove golf carts and “the news” often meant covering dog shows and performances by retired Whiffenpoffs singers. When an editor at the Galveston County Daily News, a friend of a photographer I knew in Florida, called with a job offer with his paper, I said yes without hesitation, quit my Florida island job, sold all my things, and moved alone to start a new life in Galveston.
I found my apartment through a classifieds ad listed by a tall German named Klaus. It was a one-bedroom shotgun that hung from the side of a renovated Victorian house a few blocks from the historic downtown. Two blocks away was a bed and breakfast run by a former Playboy bunny. Ten blocks south of that, you hit the Seawall and beyond that the beach. In the mornings, prostitutes walked the ocean line offering what one Houston weekly had called “a blow job on the way to work.” In the evenings it was Segways and packs of fat families. The rest of the island was filled with empty cotton sheds and port piers, strip malls and T-shirt shops, renovated lofts, new swanky restaurants, and too many abandoned beach houses.
When I met Klaus, what I noticed first was how perfectly square his jaw was and how tightly knotted the red handkerchief was around his head. He always wore that handkerchief and that, together with his tool belt, gave him the look of a pirate moonlighting as a carpenter, which was not altogether inappropriate. The other thing Galveston was known for was as a hideout in the early 1800s for a French pirate named Jean Lafitte.
Klaus was close to fifty and had owned a chain of beauty shops in Houston before selling them and investing that money in Galveston real estate, which everyone said was about to boom. In 2000, he rented one of his apartments to a deaf woman named Dorothy Ciner. It was several miles from the one he would rent to me three years later. But after the arrest, after police confiscated all of Robert Durst’s belongings, after they ripped up the floorboards in his rented apartment and drilled through the walls looking for evidence, they gave Durst’s confiscated furniture to Klaus, and Klaus moved it to an extra garage a few blocks from the apartment I decided to rent from him.
“Don’t worry, he didn’t live in your apartment,” Klaus assured me in his thick German accent after he told me the story. We were standing in the doorway of that storage garage, our eyes adjusting to the darkness. After I had signed the lease, I mentioned that I had no furniture. Klaus said he could give me some for free—as long as I didn’t mind who its previous owner was. I said I didn’t. He nodded and led me over to that garage a few blocks away. Behind us the autumn sun played with a pair of live oaks, checkering the grass with shadows. I could make out the shape of a pale kitchen table in the corner of the garage. It supported a TV, a VCR, and a Time Warner cable box. In the darkness, the contours of a futon slowly came into focus. It sat upright—almost rapt—facing the stacked electronics.
“Are you sure he won’t mind,” I asked Klaus, suddenly hesitant. Durst’s murder trial was underway in the county courthouse a few blocks away from where we were standing. He had been charged with first-degree murder, but was claiming self-defense. I imagined Durst on the witness stand and it seemed wrong, suddenly, to take his belongings without his permission. Later, people who learned about my furniture would tell me that taking Durst’s things was wrong for other reasons. How could you? they would ask, mouths agape. He was a murderer! But I’ve never been sentimental or superstitious. More than disgusted or scared by the furniture, I was curious. But at the same time, I didn’t want to feel like I was stealing from someone—murderer or not.
“He is going to have a lot of bigger things to worry about if he ever gets out,” Klaus assured me. “Besides, he owes me lots of money, Robert Durst.”
Then looking over at the futon, he added: “You think you can relax on that, huh?” He cracked a slight smile. Without answering, I walked over and picked up one end and, together, we loaded the futon into Klaus’s baby-blue Suburban. In three trips between the garage and my apartment, we moved the remainder of Robert Durst’s belongings into my new home.
I knew very little about Robert Durst before I began sleeping on his futon. I learned more through Google searches and by reading the articles about his trial that ran almost every day in my first few weeks in Galveston. He is the grandson of Joseph Durst, a Jewish immigrant from the Austro-Hungarian region who, according to legend, arrived in America with three dollars sewn in his coat lapel and later made millions buying up property in New York City. The Durst Organization is now a billion-dollar legacy that oversees more than 9.5 million square feet of real estate in Manhattan. They own large swathes of Times Square and won the bid to develop the One World Trade Center.
Durst was born in 1943, a year after my father. At age seven, he says he watched his mother’s deadly fall—some say suicide—from the roof of the family’s Scarsdale home. In the following years, Durst grew into something of a rich-kid rebel, hobnobbing at Studio 54 and trying scream therapy with John Lennon. After college, he ran a health food store called “All Good Things” in Vermont with his first wife, Kathie. A 2010 fictionalization of his life staring Ryan Gosling as Durst and Kirsten Dunst as his wife uses that same name.
Things began to change for Durst in January of 1982, when Kathie disappeared. Some of her friends blamed Durst. They said the two hadn’t been getting along, that he pulled her hair and sometimes hit her. Kathie had been finishing her medical degree at the time and was often absent. Durst was controlling of her time. But he said he was innocent. He plastered $15,000 reward posters with her picture across New York City. Later, when he started adopting other people’s identities, he sometimes used his wife’s name. Other names he used included Diana Winn. And Morris Black.
Dorothy Ciner was the name of an old high school classmate in Scarsdale. When Durst became her, he donned a blonde wig and glasses taped together at the front. He is a slight man with fine features and in some cases pulled his disguise off. Other times not. When asked to describe Dorothy Ciner in court, Klaus said, “She looked like a middle-aged woman with a flat chest. I felt sorry for the poor thing.”
A week after I moved to Galveston, I was given the police beat. This assignment meant covering crime in four small towns just north of the island. It also meant picking up the phone every day and calling four gruff-voiced, overweight men in brown suits with badges, all of whom went only by “chief” and periodically asked me, “Hey, whatever happened to Scott, anyway?” Scott, my cop beat predecessor, had been promoted to covering the Durst trial full-time. He liked pro wrestling. He called hit-and-run deaths of 13-year-olds on Schwinn bicycles “juvenile autopeds.” The police chiefs missed him.
The most obese of these men presided over a town split in half by an old farm road. His police department was the size of two doublewides. We met in person for the first time when I was writing a story about a change to local gun laws. The town’s council had outlawed shooting guns within city limits. I stopped by his office to get his opinion on the new restriction.
“Take a seat, he’ll come get you,” the woman behind a scratched Plexiglas window in the police station’s waiting room told me. I paced the narrow corridor, looked at the safety information tacked to wood-paneled walls. The intermittent crackle of the police radio interrupted chatter between the front desk woman and a dispatcher.
“Sarah,” the chief finally wheezed, opening the main waiting room door with a swoosh. The safety pamphlets flapped. He took my outstretched hand in his well-padded one. It was a quick shake with no accompanying slap on the back. I wondered what kind of greeting Scott got.
Compared to the rest of the station, the chief’s office was sprawling. Everything—walls, carpet, furniture—was a deep, earthy brown. A massive oak desk anchored all this and, after gesturing me toward a chair, the Chief leaned back in his leather chair with a contented sigh. Having the desk between us clearly put him at ease.
“Chief, I heard about the shooting ban passed by city council and was wondering what you think. Have you had any problems in the past with people firing off guns around town?”
He didn’t meet my eye.
“Yeah, they did pass that, didn’t they,” he said. He blinked and picked up a coffee mug. Without drinking, he replaced the cup on some folded papers and then mumbled something about duck hunters and people protecting their property. I nodded and wrote.
“Do you know anyone,” I paused. “Anyone I could talk to about this, a homeowner or hunter that maybe was upset by the change?”
The chief could sense my hesitancy, my lack of experience, my gender. He shook his head.
“What’s going on with that murderer you got down there?” he said instead.
He was talking about Durst, of course. All the chiefs asked about him. It was their favorite subject. They would press me for the latest on the trial and then opine on the correct sentencing “that New Yorker” should face.
“How anyone could have taken him for a woman I don’t know,” he mused. “Did you ever see a picture of him all dressed up?” Then he laughed, or wheezed, and waited for my response.
Like most of the police officers I’d met, the chief was more fascinated by Durst having dressed in drag than by his alleged crime. It was both exotic and terrifying. It simultaneously confirmed their prejudices and freaked them out, which I think they secretly liked. But for me, Durst’s redeeming quality was the fact that he had cross-dressed. It made him an outsider, which was something I understood. As a journalist but, also, as a woman, and—though I told none of the chiefs—as a lesbian living and working in a place where local politicians still remained in the closet, where a church just up the road held a conference to “help” gays turn straight, where a sweet old lady I opened the door for at a voting booth once told me proudly she had come to cast a ballot in favor of the state’s anti-gay marriage amendment. All this, coupled with the fact that I slept on Durst’s futon, ate at his kitchen table, watched his TV, meant that I found myself taking his side, in small ways, in brief moments like this one, where someone like the Chief was asking me to stand with him and call Durst a freak.
In my silence, the Chief picked up his coffee mug. Part of your job as a reporter is to make yourself likeable. Likable people get information from people like the Chief. But I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t come to the rescue of Robert Durst, but I couldn’t mock him. “Yep,” I finally said. “He sure is the talk.” The Chief took a sip of his coffee. I pulled out my pen again. The desk between us was vast.
Those first few months I knew no one in Galveston, and so on weekends or after work I would spend hours on the futon, reading, sleeping, or writing. To get out of the house, I walked down to the port and paid five bucks to watch The Great Storm, a twenty-minute documentary film about the hurricane that played every hour on the hour except on Thursdays. The theatre was in an old brick building above a seafood restaurant called Willie G’s. In the gift shop they sold coffee table books of photos from Galveston before the storm and pirate doll keychains of Jean Lafitte.
What I loved about watching The Great Storm was the sense of inevitability. Just as in Erik Larson’s book Isaac’s Storm, written from the perspective of the weatherman who failed to predict the hurricane’s approach, the film impresses the hubris of Galveston in those pre-hurricane years. It opens with sepia-toned photos of a broad-boulevarded city lined with mansions and then a booming voice, imitating one of the city’s founding fathers, reads a quote: “Galveston, with a population of 40,000, is the most important seaport in Texas and nothing can retard its commercial prosperity.” Similarly boastful quotes follow one after the other, lauding Galveston’s once “fine buildings,” its former grand opera house, its “system of electric street cars,” its beach that is the “finest in the world,” and its future that “cannot easily be foretold”—all to the sound of piano music and chipper chatter meant to represent the thousands of wealthy tourists who would travel to the city in the late 1800s, staying in its massive Beach Hotel that faced the open waterfront. Following such jubilance was always a deep silence. A darkening of the screen. The tapping of Morse code keys. And then the mounting sounds of a storm whirling.
I probably watched the island be destroyed half a dozen times in my first few months in Galveston. Meanwhile Robert Durst slept on a cot in the county jail four blocks away. His trial lasted seven weeks and Scott reported each day on the proceedings. A psychiatrist testified that Durst had Asperger’s syndrome and explained that this is why he so often reacted coldly to the tragedies around him. The defense argued that he was a sociopath. Klaus testified. So did the man who had found Morris Black’s body in bags in the Galveston Bay.
Near the end, Durst took the stand. He explained his difficult upbringing to the jury and said that, after his wife’s disappearance, he had started smoking too much pot, drinking too much and developed bulimia. He said that he moved to Galveston because he did “not want to be Robert Durst anymore.” In Galveston, he rented an apartment from Klaus for $300 a month and became friends with his neighbor Morris Black, a man known for his violent temper. They watched TV together and went target shooting on Pelican Island. They both liked bourbon. But then Black started firing off Durst’s gun inside his apartment and using a spare key to get inside and watch Durst’s TV—now my TV—without his permission. One morning, after walking the Seawall until 6 a.m., Durst said he came home to find Black in his house watching his TV. He went for his gun, he said. But Morris Black already had it. They struggled over it and, at some point, it went off, shooting Black in the head.
Durst said he didn’t remember much of the dismembering. He bought a bottle of whiskey and drank it while he sawed. He said he didn’t go to the police because he knew they wouldn’t believe him: “I kept going over the situation in my mind. Morris was shot in the face with my gun, in my apartment, and I had rented this apartment disguised as a woman.”
On Durst’s last day on the stand, the prosecution pressed him to remember more details, and eventually he admitted that he could recall one part: “I remember like I was looking down on something and I was swimming in blood and I kept spitting up and spitting up and I don’t know what is real and I don’t know what is not real,” he said. I can’t help but notice his use of the present tense.
Less than a week later, the jury found Durst not guilty. Durst’s eyes widened when the verdict was read. He hugged each of his six-member legal team. Afterwards jurors said they weren’t convinced the killing was premeditated. The case against Durst had been weakened by one fact: no one ever found Black’s head.
“Did he take the head? You’ll never make us believe otherwise. Yeah, we think he took the head, because it was evidence of a murder,” Galveston District Attorney Kirk Sistrunk later told Dateline. Without Black’s head there was no way to tell how close Durst had been when he shot his neighbor, at what angle, or from what direction. In other words, there was no way to know if we should believe his story of self-defense or not.
Journalists are supposed to uncover the truth. In those early days of working at newspapers, this is how I thought of my profession. Putting yourself in charge of uncovering the truth, though, can also feel like an unraveling. It always seems to be there but isn’t. Every time I interviewed a local politician. Every time I called one of those police chiefs. Every time I came home and recognized Durst’s thing among mine and thought without really thinking that I knew a secret about him, something that would change the course of the trial and, later, after he was found not-guilty, something that would change the course of his life, that would reveal who he really was and what had really happened to him when he lived among all the furniture I later took as my own.
I’ve read about women who become obsessed with killers. After Scott Peterson was convicted of killing his pregnant wife, he got numerous marriage proposals in jail from women he had never met. Groupies of Ted Bundy attended his trial, giggling when he looked their way and smiled. Even John Wayne Gacy, who was gay, got jail-house love letters from female fans. My infatuation with Robert Durst was different. I was not in love with him, but I did feel like I understood him. I didn’t see him as many likely did: in a pool of blood and a tight-fitting dress. Instead I imagined him as he might have been in Galveston before the killing, numb from the pot he habitually smoked, depressed, and alone. I pictured him at the end of his day, dragging himself up the steps to his apartment, dress tugging against his prickly legs, a scarf covering his bob-wigged head. Was he tired of pretending? Was he crazy with reality?
After the acquittal police held Durst ten months longer on bond jumping and tampering with evidence charges—the evidence being Black’s body. During that time he was locked up in the county jail just blocks from where I lived. His lawyer said he kept a photo of his wife Kathie on the bedside table. I never saw him in person, but I sometimes thought, in that mid-afternoon musing sort of way, that I might pay him a visit.
“Hello, I have your furniture,” I would say, as if he had been wondering and worrying about his futon and TV for the last three years. Or perhaps he would seek me out, rushing to find his belongings after being let out of jail. I would be sweeping the kitchen on a Saturday afternoon and hear the knock on the door.
“I’m here for my furniture,” Durst would say, his features frozen like they were on the TV screen. These fantasies were almost crisp in their simplicity, like Durst and I were long-time business partners, always aware that we had one last transaction to settle before going our separate ways. Our eventual meeting seemed inevitable.
Nearly a year after I moved to Galveston, local authorities reached a plea deal with Durst on his outstanding charges. He was released, and transferred by the FBI to a Pennsylvania jail for sentencing on a separate concealed weapons charge. Slowly the talk about him around Galveston began to fade. I was moved from the police beat to covering city hall. I met new friends and purchased a mattress and box spring—moving Durst’s futon to the living room, where I kept it upright and accented it with green throw pillows and an apple blanket my mother had made for me six years earlier. I still took naps on Durst’s futon for some time after that. Throwing down a book or the last part of a magazine article, I would turn on to my belly, push my elbow against the crux of the futon mattress, and dig my way into afternoon sleep. Almost without fail, when I woke ten or twenty minutes later, I would be lost for a moment. Nose mashed against white cushioning, my mind would touch fleetingly on a slip of a life not quite mine: like that moment when you turn the last page of a good novel and flip back again quickly, just to make sure it really came to an end.
One morning around this time I was eating oatmeal at Durst’s kitchen table when I noticed that it was extendable. Peering underneath, looking for the latches, I pushed the two leaves apart and suddenly saw something dark along the twin edges. There were small, almost black stains, like dried drips of some liquid that had fallen between the table’s center crack. Immediately, I thought of dried blood. I pushed the leaves wider apart and peered between them, brushing my finger lightly across the stains. I considered calling the police or someone at the newspaper. I imagined that this blood would be the clue that would unravel everything. What I meant by everything, though, I had no idea. Standing there, short of breath, I felt so close to a moment that was not my own. But then I looked closer at the table, and I realized the stains were not blood but mildew. Galveston is old and wet and mold grows everywhere.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Sarah Viren is a writer and translator whose work has appeared in the Colorado Review, Fourth Genre, Diagram, and The New Inquiry, among others. She is currently at work on a collection of essays about murder stories.