by Jack Bates
This week KRL mystery fans get a little bonus with an original mystery short story featuring a father in honor of Father’s Day. This story has never before published and was written by Jack Bates, a 2011 Deringer Finalist for Best Short Story. While this story isn’t strictly a mystery, it does involve fighting evil for the sake of one’s family, so I hope you will enjoy.
My mother, who had too much love in her heart to hate even Satan, placed the kitchen phone back in its wall cradle. She turned her back to my father sitting at the chrome and Formica table reading the morning paper. Mom sniffed in her tears. She stared at the apple tree in the backyard outside the small window over the sink. The apples, as always, were green and withered.
“Who was that?” Dad asked.
I spun around in the swivel rocker that usually faced our Zenith. Dad looked up at me over the rim of his reading glasses before he craned his neck around to look at my mother. She slowly turned to face us, a tired smile on her face. We knew from the tone of her voice and the look in her tear-rimmed eyes that something had once again happened.
“What did that bastard do this time?” my dad asked.
“Bert, Paul is not a bastard. You work with his father at the plant.”
“Dammit, Jean, what did he do?”
“He lost his job.”
“And he lost his job.”
The uneasy silence between the two filled the house. I spun around and lowered the volume on the television. When I spun back around, my mom was talking in her angel voice as she called it. It was a voice meant only for one person to hear, in this case, my father. Dad dug deep into his pocket and grabbed his car keys.
“What are we going to do?” Mom asked. It was a rare moment for her. If anyone knew what to do in our family, it was my mom. At least it had always seemed that way to me.
“I’m bringing Josie and her kids here. That sonofabitch has laid his hand on my daughter for the last time.” He threw in an expletive I was familiar with from high school and the football field. Mom flinched. Dad rolled his eyes, ashamed for using the word in front of my mom.
The first time he had heard me say it we had been tuning up my Dodge Satellite and the ratchet had slipped and I banged my knuckles on the engine block. “That word has a lot of power, George,” my dad said. “Never use it around your mother or sisters.”
Mom put her hand on my dad’s thick arm. She tried to hold him back. He pulled away.
“Don’t try and stop me, Jean.”
“I just wanted to thank you.” She broke down in tears. An ever rarer display of affection from my father materialized as he put his arms around her and held her. She cried a bit before shooing him out with her hands. When she looked up, her eyes widened at the sight of me sitting in the swivel rocker. I stood up and followed Dad to the car.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Going with you,” I said. “You’ll need help with the kids.”
“Go back inside, George.”
“Mom said.” I lied. I was a teenager. We were all accustomed to it.
Dad and I said very little. My older sister Josie lived about twenty-five minutes from us as the crow flies and the traffic light lies. I spent the miles thinking about the man who had come to be known as Sorry Paul, a loser of infinite loser-tude. This was a man who had quit a job with the county because he didn’t feel challenged enough driving around collecting water samples from creeks and rivers and ponds.
This was the same man who, in a moment of sobriety, joined a pyramid scheme involving household cleaning products. One night he commandeered a family gathering with his wares, showing how safe the products were by drinking a glass of dishwater detergent. Every time someone new arrived, I begged Paul to drink another glass of detergent. It eventually put him in the hospital.
‘Everything in quantities’ became an inside joke with the family. He was a man for whom nothing ever seemed to gel.
After one of his more legendary bouts of self-deprecation, after beating my sister and throwing her out into the street, he threatened to kill himself while talking on the phone to my eldest sister, Rosie. At the high point of the conversation Rosie yelled, “Fine, you flipping jackass, pull the flipping trigger. I don’t care. Josie doesn’t care. None of us over here care.” Rosie’s face had gone blank. “I think he just shot himself,” she said.
Sorry Paul had, indeed, shot himself, but not in the head. He had been holding the shotgun in one hand, the phone in the other. As he went to shift the two objects to opposite hands, the gun went off and blew away half of his right foot.
During his rehab he had started to clean up his act. He stayed off the booze, but I imagine he still hit the reefer. At any rate, he began to show some element of change. He was polite to my mom, helpful to his wife, but he steered clear of my dad.
Just as well. My dad’s Navy days during World War II were twenty years past by the time I came along. He was still a giant of a man who guarded his days in the service and spoke very little of them. Sometimes when my uncles came over they would start to loosen up a bit after a few beers, but I knew very little about his role in history. After he passed away, I found a cigar box full of photos and papers. In it was a letter from James Forrestal, the Secretary of the Navy, thanking my father for helping to crush two enemy fleets at once. My dad should have been able to retire from battles.
“What did the asshole do this time?” I asked. No one ever knew what set off Sorry Paul. It was just inevitable that something would.
Dad winced at my use of profanity. “He lost his job.”
“He’s lost other jobs.”
“When it was just your sister …” He stopped. “There’s kids involved now, Georgie. The little ones.”
I stared at the strip malls and cars we passed. When it was just my sister, it was a bed she had made, her decisions. I felt a little irritated that a man I had hardly seen growing up because I was at school and he worked midnights was now suddenly concerned about his grandchildren. Had he shown that much sympathy and love for me when I was their age? I couldn’t recall.
I didn’t dwell on it long. I was a teenager, remember, and I thought I knew all there was to know about my dad and the world. Of course, I didn’t know squat. By the end of that afternoon, though, I would know slightly more.
We arrived at my sister’s house. It was a rental, a two-story farmhouse, but they lived on the ground floor. The house almost seemed to be brooding. It sat under two large oak trees. The yard was always a tangle of last year’s leaves and this year’s weeds. The gravel crunched under the wheels of the Suburban.
My three-year-old niece, wearing only a disposable diaper, pushed open the side screen door that was rife with chipped and peeling white paint. She teetered on the top concrete step, one little leg plump with baby fat a step below the other and two hands holding the screen door open. Dad was out in a second, scooping up Lily. He smiled at her and tweaked her nose.
A moment later, Josie appeared in the doorway. She held my one-year-old nephew Donny in one arm. In the other arm she carried an army duffle stuffed with whatever they needed. A cigarette dangled from her lips. A kerchief was tied over her head like a bonnet. Dad slowly reached for the duffle, staring all the time at the large, purple shiner over Josie’s left eye.
“Where is he?” dad asked.
“Daddy, it doesn’t matter. Let’s just go before he gets back.”
“Where is he?”
“The Copper Penny. It’s at the corner.”
Dad carried the duffle towards the back of the Suburban. “Get in the car, Josie.”
She opened the back door on Dad’s side and put Donny on the seat. She turned and lifted Lily in next. Josie got in and put Donny on her lap and a seat belt around Lily. These were the days before baby seats and such. In my day, I had traveled with my parents and grandparents to the state of Maine and back entirely in the rear window of a Buick.
“Hello, Georgie,” Josie said. She smiled, took a final drag off her cigarette, and flicked the butt onto the gravel. She closed the door as dad came around the front of the truck. We all drove in silence for about a quarter of mile when dad jerked the wheel and we made a quick, sharp right into a dirt parking lot. I looked up at the clapboard building. A sign hung out over the door. We had made a quick stop at the Copper Penny.
“Dad, what are you doing?” Josie asked.
“You wait here,” he said.
“Should I come in?” I asked.
“You wait here with your sister.”
“Dad, don’t …” I stopped when I saw the look in his eyes. If any of the Axis had gotten that close to my dad during battle, woe unto them.
Dad marched up the steps and pulled open the door. Josie and I sat in a tense silence broken only by Lily’s singing and Donny’s occasional cries.
“Georgie, go in there. Get Daddy.”
“He said to wait with you.”
“Get your ass in there.”
I jumped out of my seat and ran up the steps. It took a second for my eyes to adjust to the dark lights and cut through all the cigarette smoke. Still, I could tell where my dad was by the sound of his voice. He had been mad at me but his voice never sounded the way it did that day in the Copper Penny. Nor had I ever seen his fist move with the speed and grace it did when he pumped it into Sorry Paul’s face at the end of the bar. It was like watching a piston in a great engine.
No one in the bar moved a muscle. The bartender leaned back against the shelves of liquor. Other men near the end, probably beer drinking pals of Sorry Paul, moved quickly off their stools and off into darker corners. My dad’s fist became a blur.
The bartender finally spoke up. “Buddy,” he said. His voice shattered the darkness. My dad looked up. “That’s enough.”
“Have you seen what he did to my daughter? Do you know what life he’s made for my grandchildren?”
“One more punch and you’ll be up on manslaughter.” The bartender took a bottle of bourbon off his shelf and poured a shot. He slid it over to my dad. My dad looked at the drink, then at the bartender. “As far as any of us in here know, the sorry bastard slipped off his bar stool and hit his face on the brass rail. Right, fellas?” No one spoke. I took that as a unanimous vote of agreement.
My dad swallowed the shot in a single gulp. He walked past me without seeing me. I hurried after him and got in the car at the same time as he did. He put on his sunglasses and gripped the wheel. “I thought I told you to stay here,” he said. His voice was almost back to his normal dad’s voice.
“I told him to go in,” Josie said. “I was afraid.”
“I was fine.”
“I was afraid of what you’d do to Paul.”
Dad’s fingers tightened on the wheel. He turned to look at her. “How can you still have feeling for that–for Sorry Paul after all he’s done to you.”
“I was worried you’d go too far, Daddy. This family needs you.”
Dad turned away from Josie and stared at me. I could see his eyes searching over my face from behind the dark lenses. I never knew what he was thinking as he stared at me and he never said. Sometimes I think he was questioning what kind of father he had been for me, for us. I wonder, if on that day, he thought he should have handled it differently.
Had he ever said that, I would have told him there was no other way to deal with Sorry Paul, that while I stood there, I thought about stepping in should anyone should try and physically stop my dad. Even my mother, who had opened her heart and home to Sorry Paul, had reached her breaking point and would have jumped in to defend our family’s honor. Sometimes you just can’t reason with evil.
Dad started the car. He reached over and turned on the car radio. Country tunes filled the car. We weren’t going to be discussing the afternoon’s events.
We left the Copper Penny. I turned and looked out the rear window. Sorry Paul stumbled out onto the concrete porch. His hands clasped the pipe railing along the steps for support as he worked his way down to the gravel lot. Blood flowed out of his nose, the corner of his mouth. One eye swelled shut like a ripening plum. He watched us leave out of his good eye. I wondered if he knew he had been given yet another chance to get his life in order.
It was the last time I saw Sorry Paul. In the past, a few days or weeks would go by before Josie would take him back. This time, when my folks put her up in a rental, he never came around. Whether or not he cleaned up his life I’ll never know. Nor do I want to know. For too long he had been a part of my world, nearly ripping it apart more than once. Once, years later, I asked my dad about that day at the Copper Penny, but like his years of service during the war, he didn’t really want to talk about it.
Sometimes a man has to do what’s right even if he feels doing it is wrong. In my eyes, what he did to Sorry Paul that afternoon was just as important as his days in the Navy during the war, only this time he was saving his family.