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The highways connecting SMU and Grand Saline cut a long, winding stretch through small Texas towns with names like Sunnyvale, Forney and Myrtle Springs. Dairy Queen billboards, shuttered fireworks trailers and dilapidated gas stations line the frontage roads as giant electric towers step over the interstate onto the prairies, disappearing one after another into the distance.
Eventually, a long train emerges from behind the east Texas pines rolling into Grand Saline’s town square, a ’50s-era district haunted by dusty storefronts: there’s Jalapeños Tex Mex Cafe (currently closed and for sale), the RexAll Drugs Old City Pharmacy, Coffeeshop and Museum (all one place) and the Genesis Home Care & Hospice — its sign reading “A New Beginning” above its tattered green awning, skeletal metal frame showing underneath.
A few blocks away, next to the roadside military memorial — a large tank, massive anchor and ornamental blue-and-yellow jets — is the Round-Up, a combination skating rink and sno-cone stand with the words “IN GOD WE STILL TRUST” painted in red, white and blue above the Texas, American and Christian flags.
The entire town sits atop a mountainous salt dome about four cubic miles wide. For hundreds of years, the Caddo Native Americans boiled water from the town’s salty ponds and streams, collecting the salt crystals and selling them in the Nacogdoches marketplace 119 miles away. Then around 1844, a bunch of white settlers slaughtered the local tribes, and two white land surveyors purchased the land and made a industry off of the tribes’ salt evaporation process. These days, Indians are just the local high school mascot and Morton Salt runs the town’s salt processing plant, just as it has since 1920.
Near the middle of town, you’ll find the parking lot where Charles Moore ended his life, an unexceptional, broken asphalt slab with a tall signs for Dollar General, Economy Drug and SophistiKutz salon, a stationary eighteen-wheeler off to the side, the driver nowhere in sight.
At 10:30 a.m. the overcast morning of June 23, 2014, SophistiKutz employee Mallie Munn saw a silver-haired man leaning against his car and watching the traffic. Throughout the day she’d see him whenever she looked out the window. She didn’t think much of it — all sorts of people hang out in the lot; it’s known as the Bear Grounds and is one of the few places in Grand Saline where you can loiter without anyone raising a fuss.
But by 3 p.m., the temperature had climbed to a balmy 90.4 degrees. Munn watched curiously as the old man rooted through his trunk, walked to the Dollar General, rested near a crate outside, then returned to his car. She thought, Maybe he’s waiting for someone to buy his car.
Around 5:15, she, her co-worker Angi McPherson and their two male friends, Dewayne Mosley and Steven Goggans, sat and talked on the salon curb, watching as the old man removed a small cushion and a red plastic container from his trunk.
He laid the cushion in the middle of the lot and knelt upon it; Munn scrunched up her face: had he really brought a gardening pad just to pull up weeds in this random parking lot? He then lifted the container above his head and doused himself with liquid: pouring it up his left leg, onto his shoulders, over his back, down his right side, then in circles over his chest and face, shaking it to its last drop.
There’s no way that can possibly be what I think it is, Munn thought.
He threw the container aside then put his hand into his right pants’ pocket, pulling out a BBQ lighter. Munn swears she heard it click. Suddenly, he went up in flames, his khakis and short-sleeved shirt igniting, his charred outline visible in the living blaze. Munn heard a low pained moaning coming from the roaring flames — a sound that seemed to emanate from his body rather than his mouth.
The burning man stood up from his cushion, took a few paces, turned slightly then fell over. Immediately, Goggans sprinted over, removing his button-up shirt to try and unsuccessfully smother the flames. Munn ran inside to grab a fire extinguisher as McPherson called 9-1-1.
“We need help down here right now,” McPherson told the operator. “There’s a man on fire!”
“What do you mean?” the operator asked.
Munn found an extinguisher, but suddenly realized that she’d never used one, nor did she particularly want to see the man melting outside. So she exchanged it with McPherson for the phone.
“Hello?” the operator called out, “What’s going on?”
“He is on FI-RE!” Munn repeated. “On fire. Him. On fire.”
“Okay, we’ll send a firetruck and ambulance.”
Munn provided directions and the operator said, “Someone will be there shortly,” before hanging up. Munn stared at the phone in disbelief. McPherson re-entered the salon.
“They hung up on me!” Mann said. The operator didn’t ask if anyone else was hurt or in danger. McPherson called back, but the operator said she’d already sent help and hung up on her too. Looking out the salon window, the men had already extinguished Moore’s flames — his clothes had burned away, revealing a melted body underneath.
Munn couldn’t bring herself to step outside. She watched from the window until the ambulance finally took the old man away. Afterwards, she stepped out onto the curb, sat down, started sniffling and trying hard not to cry. What if I had gone and talked to him? she wondered. Was I supposed to stop this in some way?
As the sun set, Munn and the three other witnesses sat quietly in the parking lot, watching silently as a crowd of 25 people gathered, talking in horrified whispers about what had happened.
Over the next few days, townsfolk would walk into SophistiKutz and pump Munn for information, saying things like, “I’m so sorry,” “You’re too young to have to see such a thing,” and “You should really see a grief counselor.” The condescension irritated her.
While she had never seen anything so horrific, she felt sadness and anger rather than shock and self-pity: Sadness that the man had felt the need to kill himself and anger over the many unanswered questions he’d left behind. Why had he come to Grand Saline — in front of her salon in particular — just to kill himself?
The entire following week, Munn and the three witnesses spent their evenings seated in front of SophistiKuts, staring out into the parking lot and discussing what had happened. Munn is the only one still open to discussing what happened with the media. Not long afterwards, she heard about Moore’s final suicide note — the one he wrote specifically for Grand Saline that no one had read.