A rancher and his six-year-old daughter, riding fence, found Kim's body. He'd taken off his clothes as he staggered along, strewn them behind him. In his discarded jeans, his wallet held plenty of cash. The temperature was over a hundred the day he died, with a hot wind blowing, but the body lay with knees drawn up, shrunk into a fetal curl. At night, temperatures plummet on the high Wyoming prairie.
He lay out there ten days, not missed, unnoticed, and with the heat and the wind and the animals, there wasn't much left to identify. The little rancher girl will not likely forget that picture: parchment stretched and torn over skeleton. To identify the body, the authorities had to rely on an X-ray, taken earlier that year when Kim fell and broke his hip outside a cheap suburban Denver motel. But that was only after they called his brother, Mark, a Broomfield, Colorado policeman, because the car was registered to Mark's address. Kim had no address of his own.
"I recognized him from the Colorado Rockies cap," Mark said. "I bought that cap for him. We were in a Payless store and he kept picking it up, looking at it, putting it down, and finally I said, 'C'mon, Kim, I'll buy it for you.' He was like a little kid."
Mark is a powerfully built forty-seven-year-old man with light eyes in a tanned face. He competed seriously in rodeos for many years but roping gave him arthritis in his hands. He intends to retire from the police force in a few years and buy a working ranch.
"I went back to rule out foul play," Mark explained. "I tracked him by the receipts. He had released himself from a hospital with severe dehydration. He was in because he'd been found unconscious in a parking lot in Kimball County, Nebraska. He always carried his fishing and camping gear in his car. He camped near lakes and streams. He'd been to Hawk Springs before. But this time there were monsoon rains and Kim got the car stuck. He'd taken the gate off the dam road and tried to drive across it. There was evidence that he'd struggled to free the car--clothing stuck under the wheels--before he decided to walk out to the road overland. He'd broken his hip in a fall not that long ago and it was still bothering him. He was jaundiced and gaunt. He was only forty-five, but he looked like a seventy-year-old man. He got two miles before collapsing. He only had a mile to go. But he knew what he was doing. He was headed straight for the highway."
A ranch hand astride a small cow pony, moving cattle just outside Hawk Springs State Recreation Area, reported. "I noticed the car but didn't think nothing of it. It was there quite a while. I figured somebody'd gone for help."
The car, a late model Saturn, had belonged to Kim's mother, who had died less than a year before. It held fishing equipment, sleeping bag, tent, Gatorade, the bottle of librium they'd given him for the DT's when he released himself from the hospital. The right number of pills had been taken; Mark counted. Tapes: Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles--music of the sixties. It also held a small box that he carried wherever he went: his reading glasses, his dead father's watch, notebooks filled with Kim's tiny, even handwriting, a Swiss army knife, and one photograph--a snapshot taken in 1970 at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. The young man in the picture wears white jeans, a button down shirt, and the fatigue jacket he got in ROTC camp. He clamps a pipe between his teeth: a twenty-year-old college boy's affectation. The pipe draws in his already lean cheeks, accentuates his high cheekbones--predicting the gauntness to come but incongruous against the childish cap of blond hair. His eyes look startled, he half turns from one of the animal cages. A bit to the side but in the foreground stands his teenage girlfriend. Her center-parted hair falls straight over her shoulders, black against the pale salmon of her trench coat. Though she is much smaller, she looms in front of the young man, commands attention with the bemused half smile--nearly a smirk--with which she greets the camera. The boy is Joseph Kim Bella, about to begin his senior year at Harvard. The girl in the photograph is me.
See that? I've already turned this story so that I am center stage. I can't help staring into that camera with Kim as my backdrop. It occurs to me that I may not be the most reliable narrator for this tale. How can you know if I was at the center of Kim's destruction? But if I don't tell this tale, with all my biases, there is no one else who will. Anyway, it isn't his story but ours.
When I learned of Kim's death, eight months after the fact, I couldn't stop crying. I cried so hard, for so long, that my daughter, not yet three, begged me to stop. "Just think about how nice me and Daddy are to you," she suggested. After two weeks of my unrelenting grief and endless expressions of disbelief--not just that Kim was dead, but that a man in whose strength I still fervently believed could have ended so diminished--my husband grew impatient. After all, I'd had no contact with Kim for ten years. Or so he thought. But he didn't know my secret.
Even now, years after Kim's death, every day, sometimes as many as three, four, ten times, I silently invoke his name. I've done so all my adult life. It is as reflexive as a believer calling out to Jesus, a soldier in a trench crying for his Mama. He is my mantra, my shield against humiliation and fear. Kim, I say silently, or sometimes, I need you Kim. Though I am married, a mother. Though I am forty-eight years old. It is possible that his will be the last name on my lips at the moment of my death.
I don't want him to be. I love my husband, my child. Kim is an abstraction, yet unshakable. I have kept him at a distance, but kept him close, too, internal as blood, as threads of tissue, and bone. They say that the lead we consume as children, which our bodies mistake for calcium, stays in our bodies forever, passes from our rushing blood to our skeleton, our silent, grinding teeth. In this way he became part of me, not a poison like heavy metals, exactly, but imbedded in the structure that carries me around, allows me to consume the days. Mistaken for nourishment, his is an exacting weight.