As early as 1992, students at Grinnell College, a small liberal arts school in Iowa, began receiving strange, anonymous letters in the mail. The letters contained homemade greeting cards with crudely drawn pictures—men crawling on the ground, toilets and trash cans, twin closet doors—and jokes that didn’t make any sense. Q: What would a duclod like about the land of the giants? A: Standing in two closets without touching either knob.
In one mysterious letter the sender defined the made-up word duclod as the fusion of two words, dual and closeted, meaning a person who hides his or her sexuality from both gay and straight people. Another letter described the duclod as “bisexual, homophobic, heterophobic, confused.”
The letters were always sent in groups, from four to seven cards reported at a time. They were always postmarked from different, seemingly random parts of the country and always sent during school breaks. Mostly, the letters targeted gay and bisexual seniors. Sometimes they were sent to the student’s school address; sometimes home, possibly in an effort to out the student to his or her parents.
That’s all anyone knew for 14 years.
I receive my own duclod letter during spring break of my senior year at Grinnell. There’s no return address, but it’s postmarked Hartford, Conn.* My address is scribbled on the front in big, rough block letters, a style that might be called “serial killer.” Inside the envelope is a piece of paper folded like a greeting card. Inside the greeting card are sheets of paper with photocopied text running crooked off the page. On one side, a strange message: “if you like shaving cats, try shaving crayons.” On the facing side: “it takes two hands to handle a duclod.”
I’m alone in my small studio apartment; my friends are all out of town on break. Reading the letter, I feel a tightness in my muscles and heat on my face, like when I have a close call on the highway or when a man brushes by me the wrong way. How does he know me? I live off campus, and my address isn’t listed in the student directory.
I turn on the TV and all the lights.
I’m somewhat familiar with the duclod mystery; it’s Grinnell’s rural legend. A friend and a few acquaintances of mine have received letters, and I think they’re harmless, probably nothing more than an elaborate, albeit malicious, joke.
The next morning I walk to the student affairs office. The director shakes her head and shows me the letters they have on file, from the crisp white letters of recent vintage to the aging, creased pages from the early ’90s.
“These are just the ones reported,” she tells me. “We have no idea how many kids are too scared to tell.”
She fills me in on everything they know, which isn’t much. The head of campus security has been investigating the case with no luck. The Grinnell police have been informed. She tries to take my letter for the file, to put it with the others, but I hold on to it. It was sent to me, it’s mine.
I call an old friend, Fred, who I know received a letter a few years ago (even though he’s straight). He wrote an article about it for the school newspaper in February 2001. He tells me what he knows. The letters were often sent from Boston and Worcester, Mass., and Memphis, Tenn. For years there has been duclod graffiti in the men’s bathrooms around campus. "Duclods die twice" was scrawled on a wall in the library basement. Fred talked to the head of student affairs, the resident-life coordinator, and the security chief. They all had their own pet theories. He had to be a student—how else could he know who the bisexual students were? He had to be a Grinnell staff member—he had been sending letters for over a decade. “He” had to be a group of students, a sort of sick club, that passed down the tradition as older members graduated.
Fred also tells me I can find duclod jokes on the Internet, that someone named Chamo Howards posts them in random online forums and on message boards. I look online and find more jokes and pictures: Find a duclod with a dingdong that goes ticktock and tell them they’re closets!!! I’m infuriated that someone accusing others of being closeted uses the anonymity of the Internet and the postal system to harass. I click from page to page, from joke to joke, without discovering any new information about Chamo.
It takes me two years to find him.
“Chamo Howards” isn’t his real name, of course. Neither is “Red Kuller,” “Gordon Craft,” “Pilldown Man,” “Chillee Ugum,” “The Quarft,” “Professor Xlhoip,” or “D. Trapper.” I track him through dozens of fake names and Web sites created over the last decade. Each name leads me to a new batch of sites, a new set of data containing more leads. Each new page reveals something darker about the man I am looking for. He is obsessed with bodily functions; his favorite drawing is a crude toilet seat with beans balanced on top. Each discovery makes me more obsessed with finding him.
I slowly begin to recognize patterns—the way he constructs sentences, his diction, the types of sites he visits, his calling cards. A picture of a jack-o’-lantern. Puns that don’t quite work. Posts at 4 or 5 in the morning.
I’ve entered graduate school for creative writing at the University of Montana, but I haven’t forgotten the letter I received before leaving Grinnell. A big break comes the day I find Red Kuller’s home page. I’m in a dirty joke forum that contains duclod jokes. Q: How does a duclod match a boy with a girl? A: By trying both of them out secretly, separately, and sexually. Chamo links directly to it with a link called “I made an uhoh.”
I click on the link, and my mail client automatically opens and tries to send a mass e-mail from my personal account. The heading reads, “The bad machine doesn’t know it’s a bad machine,” and the body of the message says, “SHITHEADS OF THE WORLD UNITE!!!!” I close the message without sending it, and a Web site pops up, titled Welcome to Destruction.
The Web site is full of conspiracy theories, ramblings, and strange pictures. But in between the creepy gibberish and end-of-the-world rants I find my first real insights into the person who sent my letter. He likes the Red Sox and the Celtics, once again linking him to Massachusetts. He loves researching Nostradamus. He’s fascinated with the number 666 and has a special formula for finding words that “add up” to that number. He loves wordplay, particularly made-up words and puns. Besides duclods, he’s also obsessed with garbmuts—half men, half dogs. Q: What’s more fun than throwing up? A: Throwing up on a garbmut while he drinks out of the toilet.
Among the links to Web sites about the apocalypse, the devil, and theories of a hollow Earth is a link to Camp Arrowhead, a small summer camp located in Massachusetts. It’s a tiny glimpse of normalcy. Did he work there?
Each discovery of a new fake word or new fake name leads to more pages, jokes, fake words, and names. I spend nights on my bed with Scrabble tiles trying to unscramble his world into something I can understand. I find forums—an anti–Hillary Clinton site, a fishing site—where Chamo has pitted five or six of his other characters against each other. Each post contains different links, but the destination many times is Welcome to Destruction. I find more and more disturbing interests. He poses as a 13-year-old girl named “Sunflower” in a forum about autoerotic asphyxiation. In a forum for battered women he writes a long treatise on how men should teach their sons to hit their future wives. I’m finding more information, but none of it links to a name, a place, a real person.
I’ve formed him completely in my mind. He’s male, middle-aged, awkward-looking. He worked at the IT desk at Grinnell. That explains how he knew the students and how he knew my unlisted address. That explains his interest in computers and his ability to open my mail client and send e-mails from my account. He’s single, outwardly quiet and polite. He grew up in Massachusetts and has family in Memphis. Too many letters came from these two places for it to be otherwise. He is, I decided, bisexual. He is a duclod.
I don’t have any solid evidence to back that last point up, but I feel the truth in it. He sends the letters to shame, to out, to accuse, but he wouldn’t care so much if the issue weren’t personal.
A duclod joke is found scrawled in a bathroom at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Fred forwards me an e-mail from a student at the University of Kansas who received a letter over break and had no idea what it was about. Chamo is widening his field.
Every time I hear something about the duclod letters I resurrect my investigation. A simple search for “duclod” turns up a man using that screen name to post on a Web site for people in the IT field. Although every once in a while he says something strange or becomes oddly enraged about an issue, most of his posts seem to be from an ordinary person interested in computers. “I tell 3.5 lies a day,” he writes in one post, and I know it’s my guy.
I begin to collect the dozens of e-mail addresses Chamo leaves in his wake. I write to them from a fake address I’ve created, calling myself “Maggie Pie” or “Maggpie” for short. “What is your real name?” “Who are you?” “Answer me.” My e-mails don’t bounce back, so I know the accounts are active. But he never responds.
My next break comes in February. It’s 3 a.m. and I’m on one of Chamo’s many Web pages. This one has a picture of pigs and is run by someone he calls “Professor Xlhoip.” I type “Xlhoip” into his words-to-numbers calculator and “666” pops up. As with the Red Kuller site, my e-mail client opens, and Xlhoip attempts to e-mail people from my account. I scroll through the addresses that have automatically appeared in the To field as I have a hundred times before. This time I notice one address that is always, always on the list. I nervously type the address into Google, and a single page pops up. Her name is Melanie Owings and she lives in western Massachusetts. I have the real name of a real person.
I Google her full name, and what I find once again scares me. Melanie is mentioned in many of Chamo’s strange forum postings. He writes hidden messages about her, matching the color of the font to the color of the background. I figure out that when I highlight the pages, the secret messages pop out. “My name is Melanie,” he writes, and I know he’s lying.
I wait three days, unsure of what to do, before I e-mail her. “I’m looking for someone who wrote me an anonymous letter,” I write vaguely. “I think he’s connected to Grinnell College in some way. Please, I know this is strange, but please write back.”
She writes the next day. She doesn’t know anyone connected to Grinnell College. I write back, stupidly, “Are you sure?” She doesn’t answer. I know she knows him, but there’s no way to get her to tell me. I wish I had asked her about Memphis, about Camp Arrowhead, about any shy, awkward middle-aged men she might know.
Suddenly I realize what I’ve been doing—e-mailing strangers from an anonymous, fake address and harassing them. I’m following this trail of clues that Chamo and Red Kuller and Xlhoip leave for me, just like he wants. He’s looking for attention, for someone to care, and I’m caring about him. My big break is a dead end and a wake-up call. I’m no better than Red Kuller, or whoever he is.
I’ve learned to navigate the Internet’s maze, the forgotten pages in ancient HTML, the boarded-up houses of the World Wide Web. I’ve trolled joke sites no one has visited since 1996. I’ve lurked in guest books that are no longer connected to home pages. I’ve highlighted Web pages to look for secret messages.
I’ve forgotten my friends and responsibilities. I’m often up in the middle of the night, the only light the glow of the computer screen, thinking about Chamo doing the same thing in some other part of the country.
Early spring 2006
I find him on a Friday. Chamo’s newest character, “Pilldown Man,” leads me to the home page of “Chillee UmGum.” Chillee’s page is the oldest personal Web page of Chamo’s that I have found. It dates back to 1999. I know Chillee is Chamo, because at the top of the page sits the toilet seat with beans balanced on top. I highlight the page and find a secret message. It’s a link that says, “This is my maker.” I hold my breath and click.
His name is Richard. He likes to farm, and his real-life Web page is about organic farming. The image at the top of the home page is the telltale jack-o’-lantern I’ve seen so many times before. I click on the “résumé” link and his life pops up before me.
First, his picture. An awkward-looking, overweight, middle-aged man with glasses. He lives in Memphis. He went to college in western Massachusetts and lived there for 10 years afterward. He grew up in Lawrence, Kan. His father had taught at the University of Kansas, where the latest duclod letter had been sent to a male senior. He links to Camp Arrowhead. I look at the Web address and see the term “shavescats.” I remember well the strange message in my own letter.
I have found my guy. I have found my guy, and he loves gardening.
I had thought finding him would satisfy me, but almost immediately I’m thinking about what to do next. I now have his name, address, phone number, and real e-mail address. I want to out him somehow.
I call Grinnell College and talk to the head of student affairs again. She’s intrigued but points to an obvious flaw—I can’t connect Richard to Grinnell College in any way. He doesn’t mention it on his home page, and he isn’t an alum or a former employee. All I have is a boatload of circumstantial evidence, all of it from the Internet.
I sulk for a few days and then decide to try to contact him.
First I call. I don’t plan on saying anything; I just want to hear his voice, either in person or on his answering machine. But when the machine picks up, it’s just that, an automated female voice, telling me to leave a message.
I e-mail him. But I do it from my fake address. I use my alias because I’m still scared and because Chamo has taught me how to act like him. More and more I want to conceal and confuse, I want to find out about him without him finding anything out about me. I write him three times: “Are you Chamo?” “Why do you do this?” “What’s your problem?” And he is silent.
I find out more about the real Richard. Not surprisingly, he designs Web pages for a living. Not surprisingly, he spends a lot of time on Internet forums, ranting about same-sex marriage, the Supreme Court, and other political issues.
I e-mail him again, taking a different tack. I write him something I think he will like. Q: What does a duclod do on Sunday morning? A: A boy, then a girl. I make sure it’s nonsensical, make sure it’s not actually funny. I wonder if this completes my transformation into Chamo.
He writes back within the hour, “Pretty funny.” I write him back two more times: “How are you connected with Grinnell?” “Why do you do this to people? Are you a duclod?” But he never writes back.
I find him lonely, sad, absurd, and I wish that was enough for me. Grinnell’s spring break ends in a week, and I imagine letters trickling in from some strange corner of the country. If even one of the recipients feels shame for who they are, did I fail?
I take my duclod letter out of its worn envelope. I write across it, big: “This is Maggpie. Stop sending letters, Richard.” I write it in a style that might be called “serial killer.” I put my duclod letter in a new envelope with Richard’s address on it. I put that letter into a larger envelope addressed to my sister, who lives in western Massachusetts. When she puts it in the mail for me, it will be postmarked in an area far away from me and significant to him.
I don’t know what I expected from Richard. A confession, an explanation, his life story, an apology? More important, I still don’t know what I expected to get from my search—recovery or revenge?
I wish I could have played a different game than the one he taught me. I wish I could have written him a letter trying to explain that there’s a community for him if he could accept himself. I wish I could have told him I forgive him.
But my greatest desire isn’t so magnanimous. More than anything, I hope he had to turn on the TV and all the lights when my letter arrived. I hope he’s scared of Maggpie.
*Some names and locations have been changed.