James Ellroy: Remembering Lily Burk

There's a single image i have of her. It was culled from a party her parents threw 13 months ago. It's a defining image and a freeze-frame now. I'll never see her again. The image should have been discardable. Then suddenly, it ceased to be. Every detail makes me wish I had more. Lily Burk.

She sat in the middle of a group of teenage girls. I sat with her parents, off to one side. There was a mass introduction of adults and kids. The etiquette was, don't get up, don't shake hands, don't exchange last names. I wish it had been more formal. My image would have expanded. I would have heard her voice. Interaction may have provided snapshots of her character. Five seconds more of her would have reshaped my mourning.

Lily Burk.

The image is final now. It's all I have. The suddenly dead have the power to usurp memory. I have studied this phenomenon. My mother was murdered many years ago. I cling to a body of images and extrapolate: who were you? My image bank is cram-full of Geneva Hilliker Ellroy. My access to the real Lily Burk is scarcity defined. Dear child, I wish I had more of you.

The dead claim the living and begin the process by marking their departure in time. Before and after become crucial narrative lines. Hypothesis runs crazy as enforced logic fails to explain the viciousness and banality of fate.

Lily Burk.

She ran an errand for her mother. She was 17 and had her own car. A man abducted her. He was a drug addict and a recently paroled felon with a backlog of kidnapping and robbery arrests. He strongarmed Lily and tried to get her to withdraw cash from automated teller machines. Lily's credit card lacked the proper numerical codes. He became frustrated and enraged. He made Lily call her parents to get the proper codes. There were no codes; Lily's cards did not feature that option. His rage escalated. He beat Lily to death in her car.

The dead claim the living and extend the process through the imposition of grief. It is the juncture of powerlessness and harrowing loss. Byroads of guilt and rage lead to the assignment of blame, the desire for vengeance, and the embrace of the preposterous notion of closure. Bereavement is inherently ambiguous and unique to each carrier of grief. The timelines vary. The emotional arc is wholly unpredictable. Powerlessness and the corresponding sense of loss obliterate all attempts to blame and all planned forays of vengeance. This is entirely as it should be. This is the living telling the dead how much they are loved and how irretrievable the loss of them is. This is communion of the highest spiritual form.

Lily Burk.

The man who killed Lily has been captured, arrested, and arraigned. Legal proceedings may or may not protract. The case has been greatly scrutinized already. It has become politicized. Parole reforms and early-crime-detection programs may well result. This is the living claiming the dead and attempting to quash their horror through busywork. Death cannot be rescinded, future deaths may be deterred, Lily Burk will not be resurrected. Her absence will further mark the passage of time. She will continue to haunt the consciousness of her loved ones. She may lead them on a journey of tender subversion.

Lily Burk.

I barely glimpsed her. I cannot live in who were you? with empirical accuracy. I have a shallow knowledge of her and will not imbue her with characteristics she might or might not have possessed. I will not ascribe a bountiful potential that might or might not have played out. Lily Burk forms a circuit back to my mother and the lessons of five decades. She reminds me of the preciousness of life and rebukes my propensity for misconduct. The dead claim the living through imagined repetition of the horror they endured. This is shock therapy as higher calling. The loss of their corporeal love teaches us to love on an infinite scale.

Lily Burk.

The dead claim the living and tell us how to live. It is imperative that we listen and adhere to their sanction. We are required to work toward probity and comport ourselves as though our lost ones are there with us. This call to virtue proves efficacious over time. We send messages to a spirit and get no material answer. There is only the assumption that she is there and we are here and we must not falter at our task. There is no human terror that the persistent application of love and devotional consciousness cannot transcend. Lily Burk will not return to earth as a 17-year-old girl. Her task is to impart courage in her invisibility. Lily Burk offers us a survival manual, written in her own blood. We are urgently charged to honor her and seek goodness at all costs.

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