Friday, September 5, 2014

Death Row Dad

(Short story inspired by "Shame" by The Avett Brothers)  

My father and I exchanged many a glance through that dingy Plexiglas wall. We tossed almost tears and wordless questions back and forth, playing catch the only way we could. Silence had always been a part of our relationship.You'd be lucky to get two grunts out of him. He let his actions do the talking, and that was part of the problem. He didn't act much either. That trait of his, among others, never made the jump between generations. I'll talk your ear off-- your nose and eyes, too, if you give me the chance. I was one chatty kid, lemme tell ya. As much of a clam as my old man was, he never minded my mouth one bit. In fact, Pop brought me along whenever he needed to get a point across to someone. Imagine five year old me, sitting in a union meeting, rattling off a list of my father's concerns. Ha. Now that I think about it, he might not have needed me at all. Just another ploy to keep me away from that abusive, alcoholic bitch...

My wife came to visit once. Never repeated the kindness. She told me my father had the saddest eyes. Cloudy, violent and turbulent... yet sputtering and dismal-- an exhausted hurricane. My wife said she could feel dad's guilt weigh down her diaphragm. That look in his eyes... that sad, sad look. I knew it, too. It predated his accusation and conviction, but try proving that to a jury. Give a forlorn stare like that and say nothing when grilled by an overzealous prosecutor sporting a massive hard-on for 'justice'... Would it even matter if he was actually innocent? The reason I knew my father could never have killed my mother was also the same reason they found him guilty for it. The poor guy couldn't be bothered to fight a damn thing. No matter the cuts... bruises... berating... my father took it all in-- absorbing more sadness into his deep eyes.   
Sixteen at the time of the initial trial, there wasn't much I could do. My father never made friends, and the only family he had left sported the suffix 'in-law.' It's hard to win a fight without a corner to come back to, especially when you lived your life without throwing a single punch. The jury found my father guilty without even taking more than a minute to deliberate. Call it inspired; call it scarred. Studying law became my life. I succeeded in becoming one of the best defense attorneys money could buy. My father refused representation for his first appeal, no matter how hard I pleaded. I turned in as many favors as I could, but I couldn't manage to get my hands on the reigns of his defense. My father was on the Texan death row, and I couldn't do a damn thing about it. So I came to the trials, visited when I could. We exchanged our sad stares. He returned to his cell. I returned to mine.

The day finally came when my father was willing to talk. Wanted a true one on one with me as his last request. That day was yesterday. Today's the first day of his death. That conversation... In my mind, Pop's words are as fresh as a steaming pile of horse manure.


"So this is it, huh Pop? Today's the day."

"Sure is."

I shook my head and pulled at my hair with my shaking hands. The man remained so apathetic, unperturbed by the great injustice costing him his life.

"I found a detective willing to reopen your case you know. He's willing to pull some strings and get your date pushed back, even this late into it."


Of course he said nothing. He simply stared into me.

"Let me appeal, Pop."

"Joseph, I didn't call for ya just to have a row."

I shuttered with frustration, my face reddening by the minute.

"Take a seat, son. Settle down if ya can."

I obeyed, as I always had.

"Done a heap of thinkin' in here, I have. Hadn't much choice on account of the lack of viable options for a non-reader who ain't fond of workin' out or sports."



My dad said nothing more, peering off at a wall.

"Um, is that it? It sounded like you were setting up to say something else."

"Ah, yeah. Sorry, Joe. Got to thinkin' again. Somethin' else popped into my head."

"It's fine, Pop. What were you going to say?"

"I'm ready to confess."

"Say what?

"I'm confessin' to ya, boy."

"What are you talking about?"

"Your momma's death. I done it."

"No... no, you didn't. I know that for a fact. You were working. I was the one who found her. I called you up and you came home, way more bent up than you should have been. Not guilty bent up... losing your wife bent up. Lacking an alibi does not equate to guilt. That jackass prosecutor had a field day because you refused to--"

"Joey. Joey, stop."


"I know I didn't physically murder your mother. Course not. I'm talkin'... indirectly."

"Uh, still no."

"Hear me out, champ."


My father took a deep breath. It must have been so hard for him, talking this much. As furious as I was at my old man's stubbornness, I cherished this surprising chance to truly meet the man. I felt like the lonely voice trapped inside-- peaking out through occasional body language-- finally got to leave its prison. Shame the same couldn't be said of the actual prisoner.       

"When I met your mother, she was a sweet child. Too fragile to drink, not broken enough to feel. She loved me, saw a sad man and wanted to make him smile."

"Sure as hell didn't stay that way."

"Yeah, and it's my fault."

"Pop, don't be stupid."

My father shook his head.

"I never could smile for her. Never could say the word she so desperately needed to hear. She needed a man to yell at her. Tell her to put down the bottle and pick up the pieces of  her life. That woman offered me her everythin', Joey boy. I gave her nothin' back for it."

"What are you talking about? You gave her everything. She never had to work a day in her life."

"I gave her an empty house and an empty heart. Not a reason to live. I worked and worked. Gave her money when she needed somethin' else entirely. I gave her a son, thinkin' that'd fix it. But you ended up lovin' me instead of her."

"She fucking beat me, Pop. The woman was a vile, irredeemable bitch. Of course I didn't love her."

"I'd appreciate it if you didn't speak about your mother that way, son."

"Fine. But don't you dare blame yourself for that. She made me hate her all on her own."

"She did what she done as a cry for help. I know that now. She wanted me to supervise her. To come home and protect her the way I protected you. That's why she got mixed up in that crowd. Took up drinkin'. She created a problem for me to fix. To make me come back and take care of things."


"I didn't do a damn thing, son. A damn fuckin' thing."

"There's nothing you could do, Dad. She was a lost cause."

"When are you gunna learn, Joe? I don't want ya defendin' me."

It was at this point that my eyes welled up with tears. I saw the door handle turn. I knew the officer was coming in to tell me our time was up.

"You won't do it, though... You won't even defend yourself when you know you didn't do it."

"That's right."


The officer stood in the doorway. He looked at my dad and nodded. My father got up slowly. 

"How you managed to turn out well is beyond me. I'll blame God. I'm thankful for it. Thankful for you."

"So is that why you called me here? To try to absolve your shitty wife?"

"Nah. Had a question."

"Well, what was it...?"

"I met that girl of yours.Your wife know's you love her, don't she? Yeah, she does..."

"Uh, that's not really a question, Pop."

My father smiled, possibly for the first time in his life.

"Good to hear."