Tuesday, March 8, 2016

A Good Man by Phil Slattery

On the day before her death from lung cancer, Christopher's mother tells him a secret about his father that may change his perception of his parents forever; by Phil Slattery.

Mom had come home to die. Lung cancer had taken a lot of her weight and the oncologists at the hospital had said there was nothing more they could do for her.

From her bed, Mom could look out over the snow-covered New Mexico hills to the rolling desert to the south. As I was sitting with her on the day before she died, she saw my wife in our red Jeep Grand Cherokee turning into the driveway, bringing more groceries.

"White," she said.

"What?" I asked, lifting my head from prayer.

"Everything's snow white like a new t-shirt. Julie's Cherokee is red like a spot of fresh blood on a snow white t-shirt."

"I suppose it is," I said. I was perplexed, because Mom never spoke so grimly.

"Christopher, I want to tell you a story. Promise not to be upset."

"I promise, Mom." I began to worry, but did not let it show.

"Even though your dad has been dead for several years now, a lot of people my age still talk about something that happened many years ago. I think you should know the truth, but I'm afraid it might change how you feel about your dad. I don't want you to ever stop loving your dad. He was a good man."

"Nothing could ever effect the way I love my dad. He was the best, most honorable man I've ever known."

"We shall see. Did you ever hear of Grover Duncan?"

"No, I don't recall the name."

Then she told me a story I shall always remember no matter how hard I try to forget it.



Grover Duncan was the boy Mom was dating in high school when she met Dad. She had had only a few dates before meeting Grover and these were with a boring, acne-infested loser named Milton. Milton's life comprised riding a rusting bicycle to his part-time job at a local malt shop and studying hard to make an occasional B.

Mom had seen Grover around the school since the beginning of her freshman year. He wore a black leather jacket over a white t-shirt and had hair like Frankie Avalon. He was popular with the girls, dating one after another, never staying with any of them for very long. Mom always admired him from afar, but never wanted to break up another girl's romance or to be so forward that she garnered a reputation as a trollop. For his part, Grover never seemed to notice her - as far as Mom knew.

In her junior year, Mom "blossomed" (as she put it) into a woman with a growth spurt that included her breasts. She also started listening to her mom's advice to dress more "lady-like" to attract a decent boy. One day in the cafeteria she noticed Grover looking her over as he sat talking to his latest chick, Myrtle, over lunch. Soon, Mom was catching him giving her "the once over" more and more often, always smiling when he did. The day after Mom heard that Grover had dumped Myrtle, he asked her out to the movies.

Mom thought she was the coolest chick in school caught up in a whirlwind romance with the coolest cat. Grover worked after school in an auto repair shop, which was decent money then, and it kept him in gas for his Harley-Davidson that he kept in near-mint condition. Mom had never ridden on a motorcycle before meeting Grover. She loved wrapping her arms around his chest, the feel of the leather as she rested her chin on his shoulder, and the wind most of all, blowing through her hair and pulling at her skirt as the sun shone down on them as they rode to a football game or down to Angel Peak for a picnic. Riding behind him gave her a sense of freedom she had never known before. He treated her more like a lady than she had been treated before by holding doors open for her, buying her dinner, or occasionally bringing her a wildflower or a Hershey bar. He also taught Mom how to have fun by not being a lady, by teaching her to drink beer and smoke cigarettes. He carried a switchblade wherever he went, which Mom thought was cool, though it frightened her a little, because if someone offended her, Grover would pull it out in an instant, if he didn't punch the guy out first.

"He was the handsomest, coolest boy in school," Mom said, "and he always told me I was the prettiest girl in school, though I think a lot of girls were prettier."

But before long, problems arose. With a deep blush, Mom told me that Grover couldn't keep his hands off her. He was always feeling or pinching her. She admitted that she enjoyed the groping a little at first, because no one had ever toyed with her in a sexual way before, but after a while it became annoying. It was also embarrassing when they were around their friends. She told him over and over that she was saving herself for marriage, though that was really her way of persuading him to marry her. But the longer they dated and the more she refused, the more frustrated both became.

Grover seldom wanted to go anywhere other than to a football game or to Angel Peak, where he could ride over the open, rolling desert at full throttle while Mom watched from a blanket under a juniper. They went to movies sometimes, but once the lights were down his hands were all over her. They fought sometimes, usually loudly, often over Grover flirting with other girls, and sometimes over why Mom refused to sleep with him, when the other girls he had dated had always put out (at least that's what he said, though most of the girls he had dated denied it later to Mom when she asked). Grover never hit Mom, but he did double up his fist a few times when they were arguing.

What made Mom start to seriously re-consider their relationship was an incident that occurred in early spring. Grover and Mom had just left the movies and were headed out for a night ride in the desert, when Grover decided to stop at a solitary gas station on the outskirts of town to tank up and take a leak. He pulled up to the pump and the attendant filled up his tank. Grover paid, and then asked the attendant the way to the men's room. The attendant pointed to the north side of the building and gave him the restroom key. Grover hurried off, while Mom went along with the attendant into the station to buy a candy bar. While she was inside, an unshaven, raw-boned, old man in a beat-up 1960 Chevy pulled up and parked on the south side of the building.

The old man walked to the front of the station where he bought a pack of cigarettes from the cigarette machine and then walked inside. When he saw Mom standing inside trying to decide on a candy bar, he grinned, showing his rotting, tobacco-stained teeth. Mom pretended not to notice him. He walked over to a wall where a selection of fan belts hung from pegs, chose one, and paid for it at the register. He lit up a cigarette, all the while leering at Mom, who had her back to him, but watched him out of the corner of her eye. The old man then walked up behind her quietly, squeezed her ass, and said, "Hey, little girl, let me buy you some candy."

Mom jerked back, spun around, and slapped the old man, knocking the cigarette from his mouth. "Don't do that!" she said.

The old man grinned even wider. "Feisty little bitch, ain't cha?" he asked, and he suddenly drew back his fist as if to punch her in the face, but when she stepped back, he laughed, dropped his fist, turned, and walked out guffawing all the way back to his car.

Just after the old man disappeared around the corner, Grover came out of the restroom and sauntered into the station looking for Mom, only to find her shaken and almost in tears. He asked what had happened and she told him. Grover ran out of the station after the old man and Mom ran after him.

When she came around the corner, she saw that Grover had already knocked the old man to the ground and was sitting on his chest, pinning the old man's arms down with his knees, and punching him repeatedly in his blood-drenched face. Grover yelled at the man, "You gonna touch my girl again? Huh? You gonna touch her again? Huh? Huh!"

Mom stopped in her tracks and yelled, "Grover! Don't! You'll kill him!"

"Kill 'im? Good idea!" Grover whipped out his switchblade and touched the tip of the old man's nose with its point.

The old man's eyes widened with fear. "No. Please, don't."

"Don't? My girl didn't want you to touch her. Didn't she tell you 'Don't'?" He flicked the knife and cut deeply into the old man's nose. The old man jerked his head back and groaned in pain.

Grover quickly flicked his knife back and forth repeatedly, making little cuts in the man's face and chest, saying, "Don't! Don't! Don't! Don't!" over and over while the old man squirmed trying to get away, but was able only to groan and cry out in agony.

Mom ran up and with both hands grabbed Grover's wrist and stopped the switchblade from descending once again. "Grove, c'mon! C'mon before the cops come." She pulled his arm back and up and Grover rose, kicking the old man's ribs three times once he was standing.

"You son of a bitch!" Grover said. "Don't you ever touch my girl again!" Grover kicked the old man in the face.

The old man covered his blood-stained face and rolled away from Grover, picking broken teeth out of his mouth.

"C'mon," said Mom, "Let's go!"

Grover looked at his fist covered in the old man's blood, licked it, and grinned. "Y'know, I really enjoyed that." He took a step forward and kicked the old man in the ribs again. "Yeah, man. That's good. I like it!" Grover said and then kicked him again.

"Grover, c'mon. C'mon!" said Mom.

"Remember me, old man." Grover wiped the sweat from his face and walked off with Mom back to his motorcycle. As they drove back into town, they passed a police car heading toward the gas station with its light flashing and siren wailing.

After saying good night to Grover at her house, Mom went inside to find her parents pacing back and forth, angry at her for coming home so late.

"We thought we were going to have to send the police to look for you. We were so worried," said her mom. Then she noticed Mom shaking. "What's wrong? Why are you shivering? You look pale. Is everything all right?"

"Everything's fine. I won't stay out this late again. I promise. I'm just cold. That's all."

"But it's hot outside."

"I'm just cold. I'm going to my room." She ran upstairs. She didn't sleep that night. She lay awake, feeling nauseous and wondering about the kind of man she had become involved with.

After dating Grover for several months, Mom grew tired of the routine and increasingly frequent fighting and began to want someone that could offer a lifelong romance and happiness, rather than someone who was always on the lookout for another fight or for his next score, whether it be women, beer, or cigarettes. Some of her friends were going steady with their guys and were nearly delirious at the thought of spending their lives with someone with whom they were madly in love. Mom envied their happiness and the happy marriage of her own parents, who had been together for twenty years. She realized that she would never experience that happiness with Grover, who shied away from the subject of rings and of building a life together - unless he was trying to talk her out of her clothes.

Then Mom met Dad.

Dad's family had moved up from Santa Fe early in his senior year. They met for the first time in the school cafeteria when Mom was sitting with some friends and one who knew Dad from English class invited him over. Mom knew he was a good man right from the start. He impressed Mom as tall, clean-cut, polite, funny, and very smart, but there was something more. He treated her with respect - like a lady should be. She smiled and confessed that it also didn't hurt that he looked like Tony Curtis but with eyes as blue as a warm, summer sky and that he had a blue and white Plymouth. Having a car instead of a motorcycle told her that he was looking for a family one day, because her dad and all of her dad's friends who had families had similar cars. He was very sociable, likeable, and played outfield on the baseball team. He also had dreams of becoming a prosecuting attorney and had plans for college and law school as soon as he could save enough money to start. These dreams stemmed from a seemingly innate drive to right as many wrongs in society as he could. He never wanted to defend someone he knew to be guilty. He wanted to do whatever he could to see justice done to those who had harmed others. In contrast, Grover hoped to own a motorcycle dealership one day, but never developed a workable plan for achieving that. He also had trouble budgeting his money and sometimes had to resort to petty theft to stay in beer and gasoline. His only dreams consisted of fantasy dates with Annette Funicello.

Mom broke it off suddenly and publicly with Grover. He was taking her to see Beach Blanket Bingo at the Saturday matinee in downtown Farmington, when they ran into some of Mom's friends going there also. They decided to sit together.

After the lights went down and Annette appeared, Grover started running his hand along Mom's thigh. Mom kept slapping his hands away. Finally, he put his hand on her knee and started to slowly run his hand up her thigh and under her skirt. She heard one of her friends behind her giggle and tell her boyfriend not to get any ideas from Grover; she wasn't that kind of girl. That's when Mom had enough. She stood up, slapped Grover's face as hard as she could and yelled, "That's it! I'm done with you! I never want to see you again!"

Mom ran out of the movie crying. Grover ran after her as far as the ticket booth, but then gave up. Mom kept running down the street. She heard him calling her dirty names and swearing to get her back one day for embarrassing him.

In a few days, word had gotten around the school that Mom had broken up with Grover. Then Dad asked her out on their first date. She dated Dad for the rest of their junior year and all of their senior year. After they graduated she got a job as a typist with an oil company and Dad found a job with city government. They traveled every weekend: Monument Valley, Grand Canyon, into the mountains outside Durango, down to Santa Fe and Albuquerque. They liked the same movies and the same books. He even taught her how to shoot with a pistol he inherited from his dad, a Colt Frontier Six Shooter.

After having dated Grover, what Mom admired most about Dad was his cool, quiet, relaxed nature which overlay a strong core of honor and integrity. Dad was not "cool" in the hip sense of the word that Grover and his friends used. In fact, Dad seldom used the word "cool" in that sense. He was cool in the sense that when faced with a problem, he did not panic or become emotional. He examined the problem from several perspectives and made a rational but quick decision as to how best to resolve it. This gave Mom a sense of safety and security which she never knew with Grover, because Dad seldom gave in to his emotions, which was a constant danger with Grover. Mom felt Dad had a quiet strength that protected her, whereas Grover had a loud, bullying strength that he could turn against her almost as readily as he could turn it against anyone else.

Mom saw this difference first when Grover saw them together for the first time about two weeks after they started dating. Mom and Dad were sitting side by side in cafeteria having lunch with some of Mom's friends when Grover entered the room. Mom saw him before Dad and noticed that he seemed to be scanning the room looking for someone. Then he saw her. He stared at her intensely. Mom was afraid to say or do anything. Grover walked up to their table and stood in an empty spot across from Dad. He glowered at her and said, "I want to talk to you in private."

"We don't have anything to talk about," she said.

"Yes, we do," replied Grover.

"No, you don't," said Dad.

Grover looked over Dad's clean-cut style and sneered. "What? You dating faggots now?"

Dad rose slowly with his fists clenched at his sides. Mom could see his tall, muscular body tense and an intense anger start building in his eyes, which he focused on Grover. She also saw Grover's eyes fix on Dad's while he inconspicuously put his hand in his jeans pocket where he kept his switchblade.

Then Mom noticed Dad's eyes quickly scan the area. He saw Mr. Pinkman, the football coach, standing with his back to them several feet away to his left, and he saw Mr. Johnson, the principal, standing with his back to them several feet away to his right. He also saw that when Grover stepped up to the table, he stepped in front of a chair, which was now just behind his right knee. Fixing his eyes back on Grover's, Dad unclenched his right fist and put his finger tips behind his tray. Then he flicked them, sending the tray spilling across Grover's legs and startling him. Just as Grover looked down to see what happened, Dad leaned across the table and said, "Boo!"

Grover instinctively jumped back, tripped over the chair, and went sprawling onto the floor.

Dad sat down smiling while Mr. Pinkman and Mr. Johnson rushed over to find out what happened. Grover shot up off the floor, but before he could lunge at Dad, Mr. Johnson shouted, "What's going on?"

"Nothing," said Grover.

"Everything's fine, peachy-keen," said Dad.

By this time, Mr. Johnson was on one side of Grover and Mr. Pinkman on the other. Both were looking hard at him, expecting an argument. "Grover, shouldn't you be in class? Bill, would you make sure Grover gets to wherever he should be?"

"Sure thing," said Mr. Pinkman. "Come on," he said to Grover.

"I'll see you later," Grover said to Dad as Mr. Pinkman led him off.

"I'll be here," said Dad, smiling. "I'll be happy to talk to you any time. Maybe we can discuss the history of social pariahs over a glass of milk some time."

Mr. Johnson pointed at Dad and frowned. "You're new here. I hope I'm not going to have any trouble with you. I know about what happened at your last school."

"No, sir. You won't have any trouble out of me. I'm into peace and flower power and having pleasant conversations with my friends over a glass of milk."

"Don't be a smart ass and don't get in trouble."

"Yes, sir."

As Mr. Johnson walked off, Mom said, "I didn't know you got into trouble in Santa Fe."

"It was nothing. I got into a little fracas with a guy like Grover over a girl like you. I was suspended for a few days. So what are we doing Saturday night?"

A few days later, Mom and Dad were standing in line holding hands at a local hamburger stand, when Grover joined the line three or four people behind them. Grover said nothing and neither did Mom or Dad. He just stared at them.

"Grover's making me nervous," said Mom, "let's go somewhere else."

"No, this is fine," said Dad. With that, he took Mom in his arms, gave her a passionate kiss while looking Grover in the eye, and with his hand behind Mom's back shot Grover the bird.

"You son of a bitch!" said Grover and he charged at Dad with a fist drawn back.

Dad pushed Mom aside, blocked Grover's haymaker, and hit him with a right cross, knocking him backwards onto the ground.

As a couple of guys rushed over to Grover to find out if he was still breathing, Dad smiled at Mom and said, "Now we can go."

"Grover won't forget," said Mom. "He'll get you back if it takes forever."

"I'm sure he will," said Dad. "I'll watch my back."

A week later Mom and Dad came out of a movie one night to find Dad's car keyed and the tires slashed. Dad was enraged. He fidgeted back and forth with his hands in his pockets and kept muttering, "Son of a bitch! Son of a bitch!" Mom could only worry about what Dad would do next. She thought he might hunt down Grover and confront him about the car, but after some discussion, she talked him into just reporting the damage to the police. A cop showed up and took the police report, but nothing happened after that. It took the rest of the weekend for Dad to cool down.

When they were at Navajo Lake for a picnic one Saturday near their graduation date, they were watching the moon rise over the hills to the east and Dad proposed. Mom confessed that she lost her virginity that night in the back seat of his Plymouth. They married about a month after graduation in a small service conducted by the preacher of Dad's church, Pastor MacDonald.

They set up house in a small one-bedroom apartment about a block from Main Street. They could both walk to work from there, though Dad went one way to his job and Mom had to go the opposite. The oil company office where Mom worked was not far from the auto shop where Grover still worked. She saw him now and then from across the street, and he always looked angry. She never spoke to him and if he started toward her, she walked away.

They had a good life in those days. They would go for drives on the weekends and go to Dad's church every Sunday. They seldom traveled far because they were saving their money for the children they wanted. To make up for the lack of travel, they found inexpensive things to do around town. Mom attended a knitting circle every Tuesday, while Dad went to a gun range to practice with a new .38 special he had bought from a friend with a few extra dollars he had put aside. On Fridays, Dad and his friends would play Rummy at his friend Bill Crawford's house while Mom caught up on her reading.

One night a band Dad and Mom liked was playing at the Sky Liner Lounge at the airport. They went to the show and the place was packed. It stank of beer and tequila and the air was thick with cigarette smoke and sweat from dancing. They watched the band for a while, danced for a little bit, and then moved off the floor to rest near the stage and watch Bill play the drums.

During one of the band's breaks, Dad went to the bar to get a pack of cigarettes (both smoked back then). As Dad was at the bar, Grover walked up to Mom. He was drunk and stank of whiskey and had a cigarette dangling from his lips. She told him to go away and that Dad would be back in a minute.

Grover put his hand on Mom's waist and said, "Hey, baby, you gonna give me what's mine, huh?" He slid his hand up her side and stopped it where he could rub his thumb against her breast. "Maybe I'll just take it," he said. "Yeah, I'll just take it." Then he moved his hand up and over her breast.

Mom slapped him hard knocking the cigarette out of his mouth. The people around them stopped what they were doing and stared. Then Grover slapped her as hard as he could and knocked her to the ground. A couple of big guys from the crowd moved up to grab Grover, but before they could, Dad came running out of the crowd, hit Grover with a right cross, and Grover hit the floor. He pointed at Grover lying on the floor among the cigarette butts and spilled drinks and yelled, "Stay the hell away from my wife or I'll kill you, you son of a bitch!'"

Grover jumped up and reached in his pocket for his knife, but two bouncers who had seen the fight grabbed Grover and tossed him out of a nearby exit before he could pull it. Mom said that the two bouncers probably saved Grover's life that night, because that was the angriest she had ever seen Dad and she was sure he would have killed him - knife or no knife.

For a long time after that Mom did not see Grover loitering in the background as he usually did. She did not find out why until one day when she went over to her parents to get a few jars of their home-made pear jam and a gallon of apple cider. As they sat catching up on gossip, Grandma commented that what had happened to the Duncan boy was a shame. Mom asked what she was talking about.

"You haven't heard? That Duncan boy you used to date got mugged a few Fridays ago. I never thought a mugging would happen here. We have fights, but a mugging?"

"What happened?"

"He was just walking home from a bar when someone jumped out of the bushes as he passed and beat him with a club. He was in the hospital for a few days."

"How awful! We've had problems with Grover, but I hate to see that happen to anyone. Did the police catch who did it?"

"No, he never saw who it was."

When Mom got home, she told Dad what Grandma had said.

"It couldn't have happened to a nicer guy," said Dad, who was in the backyard taking some practice swings with his baseball bat. "Do they have any idea who did it?"

"No, no one does. Can you think of anyone who would?"

"It wasn't me. I was at Bill's playing cards that night. I'm sure Grover has a lot of enemies though." Then Mom said she noticed that he had that same odd little smile he had after the altercation at the hamburger stand. "Yeah, it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy," he said.

A few days before Christmas, Mom had to work late and started her walk home after dark. As she went out the office door, she glanced around for Grover, but didn't see him. She thought of going back into the office to call Dad to escort her, but she decided she was being silly because she had not seen Grover since the summer.

As she passed by an alley, Grover stepped out behind her and clapped one hand over her mouth while he held his switchblade against her throat. She could smell whiskey on his breath and sweat and cigarettes on his hand. He whispered "Quiet" into her ear and dragged her backwards into the alley into a doorway where there was an old mattress that stank of garbage. He forced her down onto it and with one hand still over her mouth, said, "You owe me and I'm gonna take what's mine."

He reached under her skirt and tore off her underwear, but as he started to unzip his fly, they heard someone open a door around the corner and take a few steps in their direction. Grover zipped up and said, "Tell anyone and I'll do a lot worse to you. In fact, I'll do anything I want to you whenever I want and you can't do a thing about it... slut." Then he ran off.

Mom ran home crying all the way. Dad was there and she fell against him and told him what happened. He wanted to call the police, but she stopped him. She said that even if Grover was convicted, he wouldn't serve very long for what he had done. It wasn't like he had all out raped her. He would be out soon and he would come looking for her. He had held that grudge against her for over two years and he was determined to have his revenge.

Dad punched the bedroom door and almost knocked it off its hinges. Mom spent the rest of the night crying while he spent it cursing Grover to hell. The next day Dad changed his schedule and started walking her to and from work every day.

About three weeks after that on a Saturday night, three policemen came to their apartment asking to see Dad. One was a detective. Mom showed them into the living room and called Dad from the bedroom.

He walked in and the detective introduced himself and showed his badge. "Are you John King?" they asked.

Dad said he was.

"Do you know Grover Duncan?"

"Yes, unfortunately, I do. Why?"

"Did you have an altercation with him at the Sky Liner?"

"Yes, I did. What's he accused me of?"

"He hasn't accused you of anything. Did you tell him that you would kill him?"

"You know I did otherwise you wouldn't be here. What's he saying about me?"

"He's not saying anything about you. Do you own a .44 caliber pistol?"

"Yes, I do. What's this about?"

"Would you tell the officers here where to find it?"

"I can get it for you -"

"Please stay where you are. I would rather the officers get it." "It's in the nightstand next to our bed. What's this about?"

The officers walked back the short hallway to the bedroom and in a few seconds returned with the pistol and handed it to the detective.

"What this is about is that Duncan's neighbors found him in his yard this morning with a .44 caliber hole in his head. Please come to the station with us. I would like to ask you a few questions."

"Certainly. Am I under arrest?"

"Not at this time."

Then Dad turned to Mom and said, "Honey, bring the car down to the police station and pick me up. It shouldn't take long to clear this up." Dad and the cops walked out together and drove off in the police car with Dad in the back seat.

Mom called her dad in a panic and told him what happened and asked him to find a lawyer. Then she drove to the police station. She waited for several hours before they gave him his pistol back and released him. As they drove off, Mom asked what happened.

"What can I say? Someone shot Grover last night."

"Do they have any suspects?"

"Besides me? Lots. Grover was not a popular guy. He got into a lot of fights."

"Didn't the neighbors hear anything?"

"They heard a shot, but they thought it was Grover, drunk again and shooting coyotes or stray dogs."

"What did they do with your gun?"

"They ran tests on it and said it wasn't the gun. That it hadn't been fired recently. I told them that I could have told them that."

Mom hugged him and kissed him and said she would have her mom cancel the lawyer.

"Did you really think that I had killed him?" he asked.

Mom confessed that she had doubts though she never really thought he would. She told him the only reason she had thought he might have killed Grover was because she knew they were playing cards at Bill's that night and his house was not far from Grover's. She also told him that she had called Bill's about half an hour before they normally broke up for the evening to ask him to stop somewhere and get some coffee and eggs for breakfast. Bill said he had just left. She asked where he went for that half hour.

He said that he drove around for about half an hour thinking about going over to Grover's and beating the hell out of him as a warning, but that he decided against it, because he thought that Grover probably had a gun.

They went home and went to bed. They slept until well into Sunday afternoon. They stayed together the rest of that day, because they were so glad that the police hadn't thrown Dad into prison. They didn't even go to church on Sunday evening. They spent the whole weekend in bed cuddling.

The following Sunday, Dad had a cold and decided not to go to church. Mom went alone. As she was leaving the service, Pastor MacDonald was standing at the doorway, shaking everyone's hand as they left, when she walked up and thanked him for a wonderful service. He asked about Dad and then he thanked her for coming. Then he added, "Oh, by the way, thank John for fixing my gun. It works fine now."

Mom asked him what he meant.

"The hammer was a little loose and he offered to fix it."

"When was this?"

"About three weeks ago, when I saw him at the gun range."

"How long have you been going to the gun range?"

"About six weeks. I'm surprised he hasn't mentioned this to you."

"I am too - but then again, maybe I'm not. What kind of gun is it?"

"It's an old-fashioned .44 caliber Colt six-shooter, the kind a lot of people inherit from their granddads. He told me that he had one just like it and that he knew something about them."

"When did you give it to him?"

He contemplated a moment, calculating the time back. "About three Tuesdays ago."

"And when did he return it?"

"Last Tuesday. He did a good job. He must have test-fired it to make sure it was working. I could still smell the gunpowder in the barrel."

"I'll tell him that you appreciate his work."

"Thanks. Tell John I hope he feels better."



"We stayed in that apartment a few more years and then moved here," said Mom. "I never did tell John what the pastor said until a few years ago." Mom started to choke up and tears started to flow. "Don't think ill of your dad, child. He was a good man, but sometimes good men have to do bad things."

"And he never mentioned anything about this, not even a hint, in the more than fifty years you were married?" I asked.

"Once." She took several deep breaths before speaking again. "We were at the cemetery for his dad's funeral. We were talking to some of his cousins and he just quietly walked off. I didn't notice for a minute or two. When I turned around to tell him that we needed to go to the reception, I saw him standing several rows away looking at a tombstone. I walked over and saw that it was Grover's. I hadn't attended Grover's funeral and I had no idea where he was buried. I asked your dad if everything was alright. He just said 'Let's go,' and went back to the car."

"That night after we went to bed, he couldn't sleep. He kept twisting and turning. When he did fall asleep, he had a nightmare and woke up. He had had frequent nightmares over the years and I had thought they were due to the stress of being a prosecutor. Then he rose and went out of the bedroom. I thought he was going to watch TV like he usually did when he couldn't sleep, but then I heard the front door open and shut. I looked out the window and saw him walking through the front yard. I drew on my housecoat and went after him. I found him sitting in a lawn chair under the cottonwood, smoking his pipe with a bottle of bourbon and a shot glass on the ground beside him, looking at the stars. I pulled up another chair and sat next to him. I asked what was up. He didn't answer and I asked him again. When he still didn't answer, I asked if he was thinking about his dad. He took a long time in answering."

"'Nellie,' he said, 'do you think I'm a bad man?'"

"I told him I could never think that."

"'I've done bad things.'"

"I told him that I knew and then I told him what the pastor had told me. He didn't look at me. He just kept looking at the stars and smoking his pipe. Then he nodded his head."

"'I'm glad you know,' he said. 'I have worried about you finding out and leaving me ever since then. I told my dad once and he said he was glad I had been smart enough not to get caught and that sometimes a good man has to do bad things. He said Grandpa had killed a man in a knife fight over a card game, but the judge had ruled it self-defense. It preyed on Grandpa's conscience for the rest of his life though. I... I'm afraid I'm not as good a man as Grandpa.' He took a long draw on his pipe and exhaled the smoke slowly through his nose. Then he rose, kissed me on the forehead, and whispered in my ear, 'It took a lot for me to summon up the courage to kill Grover, but when I did, I enjoyed it, and I would do it again just because I enjoyed it. For the rest of my life, whenever I won a case that sent someone to the chair, I relished the fear in Grover's eyes when I stepped from the shadows and placed the muzzle on the tip of his nose, because I was keeping one more evil son of a bitch from walking the streets. Do you still think I'm a good man?'"

"I said nothing. I just stared into those blue eyes that had bewitched me for over fifty years. They no longer reminded me of a warm, summer sky. Instead, they reminded me of an icy sea, hiding God-knows-what in its depths. He walked back into the house and went to bed. He slept soundly that night, but I could not sleep and stayed in the yard all night praying about whether to leave him. In the end, I decided that if I left him, I would have wasted fifty years. Besides, he had always been good to me."

I held Mom's hand for a few minutes and we were silent, not knowing what to say. Then she said, "There's something else you should know. After your dad passed, I was going through some scrapbooks we had inherited from his mom. I was reminiscing about old times when I noticed a piece of paper sticking out from where it had been hidden in the back cover. It's still there in your grandma's scrapbook in the black trunk in the attic. You should read it."

I said I would.

After she fell asleep, I went downstairs, and poured myself a couple of shots of bourbon. I sat there for a long time wondering who this man was that I had known all my life and who had instilled in me the values and admiration that inspired me to follow him into the law field and eventually become a federal judge. Then I went upstairs, found the scrapbook, and read the document there in the silence and dust and musty air and dim light of the attic. I felt like a grave robber. It was a copy of a summary from a juvenile court record. It read:

"John King, 17, of Santa Fe, was sentenced today, July 15, 1964, by the juvenile court for third degree felony aggravated battery to five years probation, a $5,000 fine, and restitution to Edward Welty for an incident that occurred following baseball practice for the Santa Fe High Demons on April 17, 1964.

"According to witnesses, Mr. Welty made an offensive remark about Miss Evelyn Brooks, who had been dating Mr. King for three months, and then assaulted her by fondling her posterior, to which she objected. Mr. King became enraged and threatened Mr. Welty with a baseball bat before teammates separated them. Later that night, as Mr. Welty was walking home from a friend's house, Mr. King jumped from behind bushes along the sidewalk and struck Mr. Welty repeatedly with a baseball bat. Mr. Chester Berry and Mr. Harold Given, who were relaxing with their spouses on their porches nearby, witnessed the incident and intervened, chasing off Mr. King. Mr. Welty was hospitalized overnight following the attack.

"Mr. King has a prior history of sudden, violent temperament leading to physical conflict with other classmates, though this is the first time he has appeared in court.

"Mr. King was 16 at the time of the incident as was Mr. Welty."

Mom has been gone four years now, and I still haven't decided as to how I feel about my Dad... or about her for that matter.

4 comments:

  1. Lots of detail examining an old question of how do you judge a person's life. It left me wondering.

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  2. Great job capturing the social climate of the sixties. Good choice for how to present the story - deathbed "confession" by the mother. I enjoyed it.

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  3. Life is never what it seems. A challenging story, well done,
    Ceinwen

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  4. Interesting treatment of what happens when our parents fall from grace. The mechanism of using the Pastor's gun as a stand-in was great. Could be revised to make it more brief and remove some gerunds and adverbs for more quickening of the pace. good story, thanks.

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