“And He Was a Good Man” by Chad Patton
My mother, now an empty shell, void of emotions, stands at the window looking past its four panes. Each day is an expansion of her gray aura, like a bubble sucking the color out of everything around it. It starts with the lights, from which all things derive color, then moves toward the floor, the color draining from the white carpet, to off-white, to gray. Colorless. She is her own vacuum that purifies with a constant flow of sadness. She is a mother who isn’t my mother, which is not herself. Many say that sorrow is human and a part of the grief process, but when I look at my mother, I see sorrow as a reminder of who we used to be through who we aren’t anymore. It strips people bare and turns them into simple equations. My mother now = herself – (a vivacious look + kisses before bedtime + reservations about smoking, more specifically chain smoking or smoking two packs a day when before she only smoked half while making sure to only do this outside so the house didn’t stink + always taking me on adventures + caring + myriad fun things that made my mother who she was as a strong member of the community, philanthropist and a symbol of beauty)
The drapes cling to the cross-breeze with aplomb as they envelop her at the open window. Her eyes stare out to the street where it meets the driveway, watching the stone well and looking past it into the willow that sheds its leaves by virtue of the wind. She becomes a shadow of herself. A specter. Her life an entire wish of how things could have gone. And she knows that the tree, the road, and the stone well will never move.
* * *
Friday morning. Before my mother packed my lunch, made my breakfast and drove me to school, my father came in holding my dog in his arms. A red foam frothed at the corners of his mouth, two of his legs broken and his eyelids protesting to stay open.
My father wrote me a note before he went to work that day:
You’re a strong boy because you have a strong father. This is why I can tell you that Banjo is dead. A car hit him. He didn’t stand a chance. Some parents tell their children stories when a dog dies. Stories like ‘the dog ran away’ or ‘went on a trip.’ Being the type of man I am, I would never do this to my son. That would give you hope. And son, it’s best you know that hope is a plague on men. Hope will eat you up until it has filled its glutinous belly, and even then it still won’t go away. It will only wait until it gets hungry again so that it can eat you.
When you read this, I don’t expect a thank you, but I need you to know that I am taking Banjo to the vet. Not to fix him, but to kill him. He’s dying and at this point he’s wishing to be dead. That hope, son, like we talked about, will eat him until he’s dead. I’m doing him a favor. If you don’t believe me, I can tell you how he died later, but you must know that I cannot keep writing this seeing as I’m already going to be late to work. Therefore, my son, if you feel that, once again, this is some trick I’m playing on you, I’ll leave you with this:
He didn’t sign the paper himself. He didn’t leave any remark of his own. Instead he lathered Banjo’s paw in blood and smacked it on the bottom of the paper. Like a pedophile at a police station.
My mother almost tore the note into shreds and threw it away, but she knew how my father would have reacted. So she left it out. Waiting for me. I read it and cried. My mother let me stay home from school for the second day in a row, but the boredom only made the sadness worse.
It was time for my father to come home and I was restless. I wanted to see Banjo again in hopes that it was really, truly, a trick. He didn’t come home that day. The phone rang instead, which I remember as a clue to his disappearance. My mother answered it in her private quarters. I tried listening. I cuffed my ear against the wall. I tried a glass cup. The crystal stemware. I searched the house for a stethoscope, referring to movies select comedies I’ve seen, but realized that a stethoscope wasn’t an everyday object. I heard nothing.
My mother opened the door to find me sitting on the carpet. My legs were crossed and my eyebrows were arched like the tippy tops of question marks. There was a hint of rouge around her eyes, but not enough for me to be suspect. What did make me suspect was her walk. She used to have a glide when now she had a saunter. Her knees slightly buckled with every step. Her ankles seemed weak when they used to be lush. Her arms hung at her sides dragging down her perfect posture to that which could have been considered a normal person’s, but for my mother it was a slouch. When she walked I thought of an elephant because she looked sad, and I had always thought elephants weren’t happy because they were so fat.
My mother didn’t say a thing to me. She would have noticed my earnest. She would have noticed my fear. She would have thought it odd that her child, who was already so independent, was out of place sitting outside her private quarters in want of his mother.
She walked by, slowly, and patted me on the top of my hair. Swooshed her hand over my head to mess its strands. Never telling me what was wrong, she walked into the great room to stare at the stone well.
* * *
My father once explained his job to me. He said that he made sure that people used their money correctly. More importantly, that they were properly documenting how they used their money. He told me that the world was full of liars. That people wanted power and that money meant power and that people would stop at nothing for both. I remember he used the word loopholes.
“They’re rules that were overlooked. So, I guess, in that case, they’re not really rules.”
“Then, if they’re not rules, what are they?”
“Loopholes.” He shrugged when he said this, as if it were an easy concept for a fourth grader to grasp.
I shrugged and kept eating my dinner.
“I can take you to work one day if you would like that, son.”
I shrugged again. My mother watched the exchange. We were at a dinner table built to seat twenty. She grabbed my father’s hand and caressed it with her thumb. Back and forth like the windshield wipers of a car. The grandfather clock chimed and its pendulum continued to swing through our family dinner.
“It’s not too interesting, I understand. I thought you might want to spend some time with your old man. Mom says you’ve been telling her you don’t see me too much anymore.”
Banjo barked at us from the great room looking for food. My father yelled at him and called him a dumb mutt.
“Then I think this would be a perfect chance for us to spend time together. Don’t you think, son?”
I shrugged again.
“Honey. Your father is asking you a question.”
Banjo barked again and my father stood up with the morning newspaper left over from breakfast. He rolled it up as he neared the dog and swatted him on the back of the head. He yelled at him to stop barking, so Banjo ran up the stairs to get away.
My father put the newspaper on the table, explaining that he might need it again, and returned to eating his dinner. My mother and I looked at each other. Fearful of what he might do, my mother reached for his hand amidst the backdrop of the chiming clock. My father stopped eating and, while maintaining his attention on his plate, he told my mother to stop. Tthat he was trying to eat. My mother didn’t hear him and when she expressed that, he became angry again.
He never hurt my mother. Sometimes I could tell that she wanted him to. My father showed his anger through silence and inattention. At times he would go weeks without speaking to somebody depending on the severity of his anger, which, at this point, was strong enough to fill an entire night of him ignoring my mother and me.
And it wasn’t as if one could drown out his silence either. His silence was demanding, and not to be ignored. His silence was an accentuation of his presence. It was his way of showing his dominance. Thus my mother and myself could not continue with casual conversation lest my father extend his vow of silence anymore than was deemed necessary.
The rest of the night was marked by the clinking of silverware against plates, the swing of a pendulum; the hum of a night-shifter or joy-rider in the distance and the whoop of the breeze pushing the untrimmed Hemlock against the window in unmitigated, cat-like scrapes. My father cut off with the, ‘can you please pass the’ and reaching across the table like a man with bad manners. She made a face of disappointment and almost let out a feminine ‘uh’ before she realized his sharp eyebrows, like two mountain slopes pointed at her as an invitation to test the waters. She bit her tongue.
The night passed with the three of us, all in separate rooms, reading and working and thinking to ourselves everything we couldn’t say.
* * *
I pass my mother, still looking out the window. I ask her if she wants anything, any coffee, any tea, anything to eat besides loneliness. She doesn’t respond to me anymore, which is why I always ask. It’s sad, but it’s a game that I play with her. I ask her a silly question she won’t answer. Sometimes I get really silly and will ask her to look at my severed arm or to help me get my finger out of a mouse trap that I was playing with.
Not that I really do get hurt like this. It’s just to show that she’s stopped listening.
Back when my father was on trial, I started to read things. Sad things. Things about bad people and bad situations. I became addicted to news sites, history sites. I started to really enjoy reading murderer’s Wikipedia pages. Wikipedia became my favorite because of all the links. Inside each page were hundreds of little blue words with blue little underlines that made my black triangle turn into a Mickey Mouse hand. And within each link were more links that lead to more links all the way up to infinity.
I became, as one might say, ‘addicted to Wikipedia.’ I would read stories about bad events and then read websites about the history of bad events and amend the inconsistencies and fallacies by making corrections or additions topped with little footnote. I would write small little amendments or FYIs that gave the reader a little more perspective. Nothing big. I wrote about John Wayne Gacy’s paintings and how he made them to ‘bring joy into people’s lives.’ I wrote that Ricardo Ramírez’s case reviewed 1600 jurors before actually going to trial. And that Timothy McVeigh found help from two accomplices: Terry Nichols and Michael Fortier.
One night I came across an article that documented the fall of a company called Enron. I’d heard my dad talk about it before while on the phone with some people from work. He called Enron a scandal and said that he didn’t want to become another Arthur Andersen. I saw that same man’s name listed on the webpage.
It wasn’t long before I clicked enough links and found my father’s name. From Enron to Arthur Andersen to Accounting Scandals to The Fias Company. I found my father’s name highlighted in blue with the underline and the Mickey Mouse hand. They had everything on him. His mugshot, his birthday, his company and university and relationship with The Fias Company and The Fias Company reporting false numbers to their shareholders and how my father had ruined so many lives from, what people called, his obstruction of justice.
I ran away from the computer that night. Ran past my monolithic mother. Ran out the door and toward that stone well, the one she always stares at. I looked down into its abyss and screamed. My voice clattered and bounced between the stones, some of it locking into the cracks and crevices, but all, for the most part, reaching toward the depths of hell. I wanted the devil to raise his hands to his ears in shame of such a pubescent cry for help. They didn’t know my father. Not like I did.
* * *
It was the week before my birthday and I was turning ten. I had begged him to let me have a birthday party at the house. He said no. That he had too much work to do and couldn’t make arrangements for a birthday party. He said that if anyone deserved a birthday party that it was him because he was the one who had worked so hard for it.
My mother tried to plead with him. She said that she could make the arrangements and that there was still enough time. She said that she could go out and get invitations and tablecloths and balloons and that she could invite my friends and relatives and that he could bring his work buddies along for a nice little break. She said she was sure they deserved a break from working so hard and that it could be a party for everyone.
I looked at my father hoping that he would say yes. My mother was sometimes good at making him like my ideas. But all he did was become silent again. He walked toward his office and closed the door and we didn’t hear from him until dinner the next evening. My mother kissed me and told me I’d get a party.
When my father went to work on the Thursday before my birthday, my mother looked at me from across the breakfast table and told me to put on my shoes.
“I called into school. We have the day all to ourselves.”
She took me shopping for books and movies and games. She took me out to eat and bought a cake just for the two of us. She took me to the library and took me to the zoo where I got to see the sad elephants and wish that I could feed them peanuts. They rolled in the dirt and sprayed water on themselves and made those funny noises that they make when I watch them on TV. And then when we got home she opened up a bottle of wine and let me take a sip from hers. I pretended that I liked it so she gave me a full glass that she ended up having to finish for me.
When my father came home she had dinner on the table and I went into my room and hid all of the presents she bought me. We told each other that we would keep that day a secret for the rest of our lives and that I could only use my presents when my father wasn’t around. It was the best day in the world.
That night the sound of my father’s yelling woke me up. He tried to yell in a hushed voice, but he was too angry with the person on the other side of the phone to try to mute himself.
“Goddamit I will not become another Arthur Andersen!”
He didn’t know I was listening. The door was open a crack. He rarely left his door open. He did his business better in private, at least that’s what he always told me.
“You went behind my back. How the fuck did these get into my satchel?” I’d never heard him swear before, but when he said it he sounded so natural. Like he wasn’t afraid of getting in trouble for doing it. “You’ve not only jeopardized my career, but you have put my family at risk of losing the future that I’ve been slaving at for them during the twenty goddam years I’ve worked for this company! This is the fucking thanks I get?”
He held a manila folder in one hand and the phone in his other. His face was still white despite his anger, somehow calm, or at least calmer than he should have been. This was a new experience for me. I had never seen my father yell. His anger was always louder in silence. He seemed lucid and harmless when he yelled, much like his silent anger, but it was his yelling that demeaned him. It gave him up and took away the power of his collected stare.
“Did you turn us all into fail safes, or am I just your fucking mule?”
Once again so natural, but with the same face he used to say something like dinner, or laundry or corn on the cob. No emotion, just a widened mouth and an elevated voice.
“Shit. Look what you. Fuuh!”
He had noticed me. He slammed the phone down and walked toward me with a clear intention. He lifted his hand above his head, each step falling flat onto the floor. I braced myself for impact, but his heavy hand became a cradle when he scooped me up and carried me over his shoulder to my room. He hugged me with his arm as if he were filtering his anger through some uncertain love. He hefted me off of his shoulder and slapped me on my bed, kissing me on the forehead with the same vigor he would use to thrust a sword through someone’s heart. His silhouette left the room and I yelled out to him, hoping he’d hear it through the echoing halls, I love you. The only response I heard was the sound of an electronic motor and the crunch of paper.
* * *
I sit, once again, with my face illuminated by the computer screen. In front of me: my father’s Wikipedia page. It is the first time I have seen it since I first discovered it. His face stares back at me, still the same picture of him holding up a sign with a random set of numbers and the same face he’s worn for the whole of his life. The same face he uses to yell, to hate, to admonish and to love.
I’ve always written tidbits, little pieces of clarifications. And I’ve always written on the pages of bad people, bad events: things that make people sad. I want to try something different with my father, though. I want people to know him the way that I have always known him.
So it starts out:
Alan Francis, born August 18, 1950, is a loving husband and father of one. He is a man renowned for his unorthodox business endeavors and illegal venture with the Fias Company. But what people don’t know is that he is a selfless man and arguably the best dad a boy could ever have. One time he threw his son a party for his tenth birthday. He let his son invite all of his friends and all of his friends’ friends and even the neighbors and his family too. Some of his business partners came and he even got an elephant to come and surprise everyone. Alan Francis made a lot of food and juice and let everyone eat however much they wanted no matter how well he knew them. He kissed his wife when he was supposed to and talked to his friends when he was supposed to and pet his dog when he was supposed to and even carried some of his son’s friends on his back whenever his son asked. By the end of the day his son told his father that he had the best birthday ever and that he was the best father in the world. Alan Francis was so proud of his son that day that he kissed him and told him that he deserved every present a father could ever give. Alan Francis was honest, caring and loving. And he was a good man.
She still doesn’t answer. I see that she still has the window open so I close it. I kiss her cheek and wrap my arms around her. She still doesn’t move except for a shiver from the cold night’s breeze. I look out the window with her and I watch the road, the grass, the trees and the stone well at the end of the drive. The clock chimes ten o’clock in the background. It would be at this time that she would tell me to go to sleep, that I had a big day at school tomorrow. Every school day was big to her. Tonight is different, though. Tonight I sit next to her, cross-legged on the carpet, and stare out the window. Tonight I envy her for still standing. She had yet to be eaten, yet to become a victim. Turning to her, I smile thinking that I maybe, possibly, understand now. Thinking of something to say to her, I open my mouth, but on second thought I decide that silence is better. It was what he would have wanted.