Nightmares beyond the forefront of the imagination take root in the soil of unconnected stories. The time of youth is a time to till the soil and to rediscover what you don't yet know has already been discovered. I remember well the year I turned nine. It was the year my father stopped being a part of my life.
Dad took me to the beach two days before the day he went away. We failed miserably in our attempt to build a castle from the sand and he promised we would try again next year. When next year came, I refused to go to the beach unless my father took me. After all, mom had told me that he had gone away and would someday come back. So I sat in my room, watching the horizon with my telescope, waiting for his return. My mother changed with the events of that night as well. Her body continued to walk around the house, but her mind never came back to us. She lived in denial, and the lies she told me about father's disappearance hinged entirely on her own perception. No one else bothered to fill me in until today. A lot of water passed under the bridge, but most of it never saw the light of day.
There was never another man in my mother's life, but she descended into a variety of bottles to try in vain to achieve some semblance of inner peace. As I grew up I watched her erode, sometimes sliding into a piece of furniture and becoming a part of it for hours. Holding tightly onto a cup of coffee, she would melt into the sofa and not even notice as I left for school. When I came home from school, her position was unchanged, although her coffee had gotten quite cold.
The dangers of youth became more readily apparent to me as I entered into my teenage years. With no father figure and a mother that was little more than a breathing corpse, I found getting into trouble to be too much of a temptation. I stole cars, smoked cigarettes, drank liquor I stole from my mother's impressive collection, and had sex with anyone I could get an angle on. Then came the drugs. Then came the official notice that my life clock was about to expire. The time was ripe to discover the truth.
Danny Botempte was my father's closest friend from long before I had ever been considered, less conceived. He was a rolickingly obese man who tried to find the humor in anything. I remember my father being a tall, thin serious man, which made them a kind of Abbott and Costello team. Danny Botempte showed me Playboy for the first time when I was seven.
It was Danny who came to see me in the hospital. Two or three stray aunts and uncles swung by to rattle off meaningless niceties, but it wasn't until Danny Botempte came to visit that I began to regain consciousness.
"You still like licorice?"
I smiled, although I had forgotten about my love for licorice for more than two dozen years. Danny slipped me a couple of black nuggets of licorice and then sat down on the edge of the bed.
"You probably want to know what really happened to your dad. You probably have the right to know."
I wasn't sure I was ready, and after he related the tale to me, I would be even less sure. For decades I had been certain that my father had been one of those men who decides his commitments run too deep and abandons family and home for the freedom of emptiness. I never suspected, but I did fantasize, that my father was dead. What Danny Botempte would tell me changed everything, and if only he had told the tale when I was still forming my opinions of the world I would have evolved into a much different person. It was unlikely I would be occupying a hospital bed and waiting to die. My anger would have grown to take a different color, and I cannot predict where I would have taken it.
"Are you comfortable?"
I shrugged as a response and Danny handed me the bag of licorice so I could enjoy the dark nuggets on my own time clock. Then he got himself a cup of black coffee and began to explain the nature of all things with as few words as possible.
It was back in a time when my mother bought all manner of spices and proudly displayed them in an Art Deco spice rack she purchased in one of those European import stores. She did not use the spices to cook for the family. They were saved for special occassions, and when those special occassions never came, the spices sat for years, touched only when mom regularly dusted them. I once was grounded for two weeks because I dared to open a sealed bottle of oregano. I had the crazy idea that it would improve the flavor of the spaghetti sauce I was reheating.
My father often went out at night, usually after my bedtime, but I always heard him leave. The car would start in the driveway and he would be off to what I thought were mysterious destinations. This was a point in time where I worshipped the man, and it would have crushed me to realize that he was usually either going off to the track to bet on the greyhounds or just to the corner store to acquire a pack of smokes.
The night he did not return did not begin in a way that was any more unusual than any other night. I had been in bed for a half hour, tossing and turning because the street lights could not avoid illuminating my bedroom. I heard his footsteps going to the door. He opened the front door, closed it behind him, and then walked across the front yard to the driveway. I heard the car door open, then close, and the ignition fire up. Moments after hearing dad's car drive off down the road, I was asleep.
"Please remember to pick up some milk on your way home."
Those had been my mother's final words to my father, but I never heard them. When she spoke her words floated like poetry, and her voice rarely carried past its intended target. If my father had forgotten her request, as he usually did, he would have lived past that night. As fate would have it, once he broke stride with his normal course of behavior he ceased to exist. There were no obvious reasons for his change of heart on running errands for my mother during his nightly quests. Perhaps she had made it clear that she needed more from him and that remembering a simple thing like stopping to buy milk would be a good start.
MacConnell's Corner Store would close after that night, as much a victim of the events of that evening as it was of convenience store chains infiltrating the area. There was no criminal element in our little town, but that night would be the harbinger of a new era where anything was possible. The knife that cut through the bubble in which we lived now has a permanent home at the local police station.
What was curious was that my father had already been to MacConnell's once that night. On his way to the track he stopped there to buy a pack of cigarettes. Mumbling to old Mack MacConnell about how he needed to buy a gallon of milk but couldn't let it sit in his car all night, he jokingly told the old shopkeeper to "put one on reserve." Then, with a smile, he was off to gamble on the performance of trained canines.
His return to the store came four hours later, at nearly one o'clock in the morning. There were already two men in the store, and both were anxiously walking up and down the grocery aisles ranting to each other about what they were going to do. Mack MacConnell considered calling the police, but decided the two men were merely drunk and that their hostility would not manifest into regrettable actions. He had seen their kind before, and running the only twenty-four hour store in town left him often at the mercy of a questionable late night crowd. When my father walked in, Mack breathed a sigh of relief and greeted him with a friendly slap on the back.
"Who the fuck are you? Are you a fucking cop?"
Whether or not my father's arrival was completely responsible for the two strangers' increased hostility is a subject that can be debated without reaching a satisfactory conclusion. The men were already edgy and upset, but it is possible they would have left without incident. Instead, they accused Mack of calling the police and began screaming at both Mack and my father for several minutes before rushing to the front of the store together and knocking my father to the floor. Mack reached for the phone, intending to call the actual police, but one of the men leaped off my father and hurdled the front counter. He knocked Mack MacConnell head first into the wall. The old timer suffered a severe concussion and missed most of what happened after that.
"We have to get out of here, cop, and you ain't gonna stop us."
My father has never been a police officer, or anything remotely resembling a police officer, but that was something these strangers could not accept. They were paranoid, and as was learned later, they had been on a two week crime spree up and down the coast, robbing liquor stores and gas stations. They were big fans of cocaine and angel dust, making illicit withdrawals from small businesses to support their habits. As a result, they were very high strung, trusted no one, and would stop at nothing to keep their road trip in motion.
"Gonna put you on ice for a while, pig."
One of the villains found a roll of duct tape and began wrapping it around my father's wrists and ankles. Then he wrapped it around my father's mouth, stretching it around his head four times to assure themselves he could make no noise. Then they joined forces to drag him into the back room. My father listened as they debated the issue of Mack MacConnell, who survived the night because the two strangers were convinced they had killed him.
"I done broke his neck."
What they planned to do with my father at that point is a question that can never be answered. They were interrupted by the sound of the bell that went off whenever the front door of the store was opened. Together they rushed out of the back room to see who their newest foe would be.
It was Maurice Goldstein, who I would have as a history teacher four years later in Junior High School. He was a depressed and fidgety man, mostly the result of suppressing his homosexuality. Long after I graduated from high school I found that he had at last come out of the closet. Unfortunately, I learned in a rather uncomfortable fashion. While I was prostituting myself to pay for my own drug habit, he arrived at my rented room with a fistful of cash. Luckily, he did not seem to remember me from my days as his pupil.
"The store is closed. Get out."
The strangers were not very adept at avoiding controversy, nor were they very good at not appearing suspicious. Mr. Goldstein stepped back through the door, muttered something about the store being open twenty-four hours, and got back into his car. Not realizing that Goldstein would immediately call the police from a nearby pay telephone, they continued to go about their business in the slowest fashion possible.
The entire MacConnell family lived in a four bedroom colonial style house just beyond a line of trees behind the store. They took turns minding the store and everyone had a stake in it.
Mack MacConnell's daughter Rebecca had a mentally retarded son born out of wedlock. Her son Stevie was at that point sixteen years old and often worked stocking shelves and sweeping the floors. At times he came to visit his grandfather at night when he could not sleep. One of those nights was the night my father died, and Stevie had trouble comprehending all that was going on. He thought of the strangers as just another couple of friendly customers and assumed his grandfather was sleeping. His interruption gave my father enough time to wrestle out of the duct tape restraints.
"You want some candy or gum?"
The strangers did not know what to make of Stevie, or his opening remark. They stood there, looking puzzled, wondering what this boy was doing in the store at this hour. Being men of a mostly ignorant nature, they were afraid of Stevie's disability and tried to ignore him. They asked Stevie to open the cash register, and he did. When the men demanded he hand them the money from the register and then inquired about the location of a safe, Stevie asked if they were from the bank. They paused for a moment and decided to tell him that they were.
"I play baseball with my friends. Do you like baseball?"
My father freed his arms and legs and then stood up, trying to be quiet, and started looking for a telephone in the back room. He slipped on the juice from a leaky box of canned peaches in heavy syrup, and instead of maintaining stealthy movements, he fell onto an empty metal rack with a crash that must have seemed a hundred times louder than it actually was. Before he could pick himself up, one of the strangers stormed into the room with a knife in his left hand, yelling obscenities at my father in no particular order.
Everything went black for the next handful of minutes, and no one is quite sure what happened in the time that evaporated from the clock. When time finally came back to its natural state of being, my father had decided to defend himself with a metal stool and had ceased to exhibit rational thought. The other stranger came into the back room, followed by Stevie, who screamed out, thinking my father was an intruder, as no customers were allowed in the back room. He knew that and made the only natural assumption. What he watched was what he would come to assume was the right way to deal with people who broke the rules. It would heavily contribute to the severe depression that placed him in a group home for the next seventeen years.
My furniture flinging father was charged by the two strangers, who had no difficulty using their knives for the purpose of battling foes. The blades cut my father several times in the stomach and abdomen before he fell to the floor and one of the strangers decided it would be in everyone's best interests if he went ahead and slit the throat of the man whose loins had jettisoned my most primordial form into the womb of my mother.
His death had been bloody, but it was not terribly painful. It had been quick, and with the adrenaline rush my father was under the influence of, he likely felt very little pain. There were many lives changed by the events of that night, but for my father it was a chance to sleep and perchance to dream. Many things would have turned out differently if that one night had not turned the way they did, or even if the strangers had chosen another store to rob or if their car had blown a flat tire somewhere on the highway. Events happen and they change the nature of things without realizing the extent of what they are doing. Life requires that we think many moves ahead and not take the future for granted. I would never have railed against the perceived causes of my father's death, even if I had lived beyond the night Danny Botempte came to see me in the hospital. The cause of death is always life. Everything else is just a symptom.