by J.A. Strawn
Chapter 1: Confessions
Rock concert posters and weathered playboy spreads from the 1970s plastered the walls of the men’s room at Donny Fiasco’s Bar & Grill. Nope, the bar was not the finest establishment in the area but they were known for having cheap beer and the tastiest hot wings. The red-orange sauce must be made from some otherworldly chemicals because they were addictive as hell and equally resistant to water. Harrison ruminated on these little facts as he spent the last five minutes scrubbing the remnants of the chicken-wing feast. Dear old Daddy was a stickler for cleanliness, being a doctor and all, and even though the bar and food was his idea, one must obey the rules.
Harrison, twenty-one year-old college student, former athlete, Game of Thrones fan, and founding member of his high school’s tongue-in-cheek “Not a Political Party” club tried not to let his eyes wander to the soft-focused photo of a gorgeous brunette. He had to high-tail it back to the table before his father pitched a fit about taking too long in the bathroom. That didn’t stop him from giving the all-female table a once-over on his way back, and he might have even flashed a smile before it faded at the prospect of another one-sided conversation that awaited him.
Like a background video game character that suddenly imparts some vital information, his father seemed to come back to life as soon as Harrison sat at the table.
"Son, what I am telling you, I need you to keep to yourself. Understand?" Bruce spoke in a slow southern drawl. This made Harrison sit up straight, the unspoken rule during one of these talks. His eyes flicked to the television screen on the wall but he did his best to give his full attention.
Bruce was an elegant man of sixty and wore his salt and pepper hair in a carefully parted wave held with wax. However, his goatee was not as trimmed as usual and a five-o’clock shadow gave the impression of an oddly pointed beard. Bloodshot eyes hiding behind his reading glasses added to the slight disarray of his usual controlled and tidy appearance. Harrison didn’t seem to notice the slight change in his father. Maybe the changes happened too slowly over the summer to make an impression. Or it could be that he simply couldn’t make out any details in the room. Like most of these establishments, the darkened windows and dim lighting concealed the imperfections of the patron’s faces. One might not notice the scars and haggard looks of these daytime drinkers, but it didn’t paint the picture of perfect health either. The reddish lighting only democratized the plethoric complexion, allowing everyone to share in a devilish glow. It might have been unnerving to Harrison if he didn’t appreciate the way the light accentuated the right features of the ladies a few tables to his right. He wondered what brought them here on a Sunday afternoon.
"Harrison? I really do need to speak with you, son," Bruce said in all earnestness. Harrison cleared his throat and felt his face flush, assuming his father caught him looking at one of the girls in particular. He thought he saw a flower tattoo poking out just over—
“—Eyes here!” his father nearly shouted.
“This is about your mother. There are some things I gotta get off my chest.”
"Father, I respectfully request that you just don't bring up Mama. It feels like we just buried her.” Harrison briefly made eye contact with his father before signaling to the waitress, Desiree, that he was ready for a refill on his beer.
"Respectfully?” Bruce took off the reading glasses that were perched at the end of his nose.
“It's too raw, ok?" Harrison said.
Bruce rubbed a hand over his face and slumped in his seat enough so that even his son noticed.
“Are you feeling alright? Okay, okay, let’s talk.” Harrison was trying to pay attention. This seemed like a moment he ought to pay attention. Still, they were in public and the waitress was bringing their beers and he couldn’t just ignore the woman.
“Thank you, ma’am,” Harrison said as she neared the table.
“You are welcome,” she said in a sing-songy voice. She shimmied into the space between them and brought over the glasses, dripping with amber-colored beer. She wasn’t much of a flirt—no cute banter or winks—but Harrison was sure she added a little wiggle to her walk whenever she knew she had his attention.
"Dr. Johnstone, here ya go.” Desiree flashed a quick smile to Bruce who flashed a forced one in return. Harrison wondered if she was into older men. She played aloof while she cleaned up the empty glasses and moved away as quickly as possible, flipping her hair as she left.
"What classes are you taking right now, Harrison?"
"That’s what we’re…alright. I'm still finishing up my business degree credits so they'll all sound the same to you. Oh, and a course for marketing on social media. You'd like that. My professor hates all of the same things you do." Harrison laughed out loud and seemed to be waiting for a similar response from his father who merely nodded.
"Good. Any humanities? I think humanities are important. Not enough people know who we are or how we got here."
Like the rest of the crimson-colored patrons, his son was focused on today’s football game. He flinched when an obvious pass was screwed up by a halfway decent player. He locked eyes with another fan and they shook their heads in shared disappointment.
"Huh? You told me humanities were for pus—”
“—I said not to waste your degree.”
Harrison held his tongue and took a long pull on his beer. He knew today would be full of contradictions. The man was impossible to please. He bit at a hangnail on his thumb and waited for more fatherly wisdom. Bruce folded his arms and looked into the distance like he was remembering something long ago.
“Paradise Lost. Have you read that one?”
“I’ll put it on my reading list, if that’s what this is all about. Is that why we’re here? A book club?”
His father waved his hand. "No, no, just. . .do you remember Sunday school? They failed to mention so much."
"You are starting to sound like Mama,” Harrison replied impatiently.
“They should teach you the answers to the big questions. They should keep you on the right path.”
“Ten Commandments, good and evil, yep.”
“But humans have hardly scratched the surface of God’s justice. His vengeance. The tyranny of heaven. . .” Bruce’s voice trailed off slightly. He scanned the room from the rim of his pint glass, drinking in large gulps.
“It was your idea to go to a bar on Sunday. Not that I mind,” he laughed a bit to lighten the mood. Harrison wasn’t sure what to make of his father’s strange behavior. He was starting to see it in the older man's face as well; the tired lines, the stubble, and a rumpled shirt to top it off. Dr. Bruce Johnstone was a respected physician before Mama passed away. His phone buzzed on the table as a text from his sister, Marcy, came through.
“You know, Marcy and I were talking about it and think maybe you need some time off. She even mentioned you could see a doctor, you know what kind. To help. I mean--"
"--Not another word!" Bruce interrupted his son and grabbed his hand, squeezing hard. Bruce’s face turned bright pink beneath his cheeks covered in silvery stubble. He was trying to hold the anger inside for the sake of propriety and for the sake of his soul.
“You forget yourself, son. Don’t you forget. I am trying to tell you, on this Sunday, that you need to consider some things for the…the day of judgement.” Bruce’s posture straightened up with each righteous word.
“Yes, sir,” Harrison said. He glanced around the room. Nobody paid them any attention, much to his relief. Then someone shouted, “Can I get an Amen!” He wanted to laugh along with the giggles and snorts he heard at the next table, but the bones and tendons of his hand hurt in his father’s powerful grip.
"I don’t want to be a hypocrite. I don’t. I’ve been hedging my bets. You can avoid it. Or maybe you can’t. Maybe you can’t. I’ll have to make some phone calls. You need to meet them. The others. Just in case.”
“The others? You’re losing me here.” Harrison sounded out of breath, startling his father enough to release his son’s hand.
Bruce ignored the pained expression on his son’s face and the way he cradled it to his body. As always, alcohol gave the old man heartless courage. The man in question folded his hands together in the way Harrison knew a lecture would begin. He cracked his neck and surveyed the room, still worried that someone might be watching them. The ladies were getting hammered and he wished he could slip away to try his luck. But Daddy wasn’t letting him go anywhere.
“When I was your age, I was a little bit like you. Not with the privileges, mind you. Things are too easy for the young. No, the way we were alike is that I knew that I was saved.”
“I don’t think—”
“—and didn’t question enough. Never considered why or how.”
Bruce pressed a finger to his forehead to illustrate his point. He sipped from his beer and leaned toward Harrison who tried his best to hide a frown.
Whispering, he said, “Even after what I did."
"What do you mean?” Harrison asked.
"I was around your age, or somewhat older I guess, because I was in medical school. In any case, I lived in a shabby place and vagrants were a common nuisance. One of them, I guess we’d call her a bag lady, smelled like the sewer and her hair was piled on top of her head in such a way that it looked like a giant bird’s nest. Kept turning up like a bad penny no matter how many times the police threw her out. And she was disturbed. Used to talk to herself and then she would carrying on screaming and crying in public without shame. Probably would’ve burned her as a witch in the old days.”
Bruce smiled to himself and shook his head.
“I never used to. . .”
Harrison leaned forward, accidentally landing his elbow in a puddle of beer. He was still wiping it off when Bruce remembered himself.
“Now, one day,” Bruce said. “I was getting back with my groceries and I had enough of this waste of human life taking up space. I must have made a joke at her expense under my breath, mind you. But she heard me. Through all of the voices that must have been screaming in her head, she heard my insult. Lady went nuts. Tried to stab me with a knitting needle!"
"What did you do?" Harrison asked.
Bruce cleared his throat. He sipped from his beer again and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
The lights flickered for a moment and someone shouted at the t.v. screen. The game was still on but Harrison didn’t care anymore.
"Well, I pushed her,” Bruce said with a confused expression. “I just pushed her away and she fell on the ground."
"Okay. So that doesn't seem so bad." Harrison crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair.
"Slight little thing. Looked bigger with all those layers of clothes and ratty hair. It didn’t take much. She hit her head on the curb. Died instantly," Bruce spoke the last words softly. He pulled at his collar.
Harrison sat still, considering the story. Finally, he spoke again.
"Not your fault. You were attacked. Crazy lady could have killed you."
Bruce furiously shook his head. "No. She was frail. Half-starved.”
Bruce looked down at his own strong hands, the hands of a surgeon.
“Someone attacks, you stand your ground. It’s in your rights,” Harrison offered an excuse.
“I knew that it wasn’t okay but that part of me made sure that everything lined up and. . all the same I didn’t feel the need to atone. My soul was headed for paradise. I always expected a soft landing no matter what happened. I’m a believer. Always was. And that was just fine.”
He glanced around the dark room, hoping for a distraction and caught sight of a strange dark man pacing near the far wall, but couldn’t make him out. He could distinguish the faces of everyone else in the room but it was as if his just didn’t want to be seen.
“I didn't have to push her,” Bruce continued. “I’ve had to justify what happened and still I come back to the real truth-nugget--I killed her because she disgusted me. Part of me made the decision about her death the moment I first encountered her. And I knew I could get away with it. "
Harrison saw his father’s face contort, barely hiding a sneer, a face of revulsion before it returned to a mask of contrition. But that's all it was, a mask. Harrison felt a chill run up his spine just as it happened.
"Daddy, it was an accident. You didn’t really want to hurt her,” Harrison said. “It was an accident. You didn't get in trouble, right?”
"Witnesses saw it from my side. They hated her too, I reckon. And I had that soft landing so I could forget about it. For a while.” Bruce drank from his beer, a man in great thirst.
“Then the jagged edges appeared. His wrath. I saw him. It. Him. Following when no one else could see him. Judgement. And I never challenged the Almighty. Never! Maybe I had it mixed up. But there’s always a deal to be had.”
Harrison stared at his father, waiting for a punchline or anything to let him know that everything would be okay. How the hell was he supposed to react otherwise?
“Har, I’m not crazy,” Bruce said, as if reading his son’s mind.
“He spoke to me once.”
“Who? God?!” Harrison couldn’t hold back for much longer.
Bruce ignored his son’s outburst and said, “I can't say what he was. . .is. I tried to make him stop. He wasn’t always there but he was there enough and I needed him to leave me alone. He told me he was just a wanderer and he would return with vengeance. I didn’t see him for a long time after that,” Bruce explained.
Harrison jumped when the waitress appeared by his side, almost out of thin air. He was so absorbed in the story that the world fell away.
“Well, now, how we all doing? Gotta buyback for you two.” Desiree, caught them by surprise when she landed two refills at the table. This time, Harrison managed a fake smile in her direction.
“Thank you Desi. I should have asked earlier-- how are the kids?” Bruce asked.
“Fine, just fine. You see Bubba in here yet?”
“No, no. I don’t believe so. What’s the news?”
“Oh, he and Tyler got some new conspiracy they want to run by you. I’ll try to head them off if I can. I can see you’re both knee-deep in something,” she smiled knowingly and left them to their own devices.
“Thanks for that,” Bruce raised a glass. “And for the round.”
Once she was out of earshot, Bruce started up again.
“So now you know. About the woman, about the creature, everything.” His son only knew that this Sunday school lesson was clear as mud.
"Why are you telling me this stuff? You sound like. . ."
“—I know what it sounds like! But it’s all real,” Bruce whispered harshly.
Harrison smoothed back his dirty-blonde hair and rubbed his face compulsively. He was bewildered at his father's behavior.
"He's counting my transgressions, tallying up my sins. Ending her life wasn't my first sin and yet, as a fallible man, I sinned again and again."
"What do you mean, you sinned again?" Harrison asked, silently wishing he could be anywhere but across from his father. He needed his sister. Marcy could help but if he picked up the phone to call her, that would drive his father into a tailspin.
Bruce shook his head and refused to answer. "Always wearing that long black coat and carrying that damned...damning...book in his hand. I owed a debt. He never left me alone. And then I realized, it’s an eye for an eye. Your mother? I reckon that was my payment."
"Mama had a stroke and then everything else? It was horrible but you can’t think her illness was all your fault. Because it wasn't. It's the luck of genetics."
"She was the forfeit!” Bruce, a man of some presence, made quite a commotion as he knocked over his chair and stumbled out of the bar.
Harrison shook his head, mostly for the benefit of the other patrons. They would understand that it was just a case of too much imbibing, and there was a fair chance this was true. Daddy changed when Mama became sick and when she died he seemed so lost. Grief did funny things to people.
“Big Daddy can pay for this afternoon,” Harrison said to himself.
He picked up the coat his father left behind and searched the pockets, knocking several prescription bottles of pills onto the floor. Their attentive waitress was quick to gather them up and hand them over.
"Is your father doing alright?" she asked.
"He's just, agitated," Harrison answered, embarrassed.
"I don't mean to pry, but I see he has Parkinson's. My grandmother takes some of those pills. She couldn't take the Artane—made her see things. Just remember he can switch if it's not working." She smiled and squeezed his hand in a show of support.
Harrison was both relieved and worried when Desiree offered the possible explanation for his father’s behavior. He needed to speak to Marcy once he calmed down. He pocketed the drugs and gathered his father's things, somehow feeling like a thief. He felt like someone was watching, the kind of eyes on him that makes his hair stand on end. He dared to look and found the strange man he noticed earlier. His face was impossible to make out from where he stood in the corner of the room, but he was sure that was the one was watching him. Paranoia sure is catchy.
He dropped his father’s cash on the table and started for the door. Almost as an afterthought, his hand found one of the pill bottles and drew it up to take took a look at it, just out of curiosity. It wasn’t prying or snooping because this was family and he was worried about the old man. But there it was in black and white: his mother’s name. Not being a doctor himself, he told himself not to think on it too much.
Desiree told him that it caused hallucinations. Mama saw things. She had a series of strokes. They said there was nothing to be done. Mama stopped making sense toward the end. She accused their father. . .No. It didn’t add up and they needed to get on the road. Marcy would be at the house soon.
Outside, his father was leaning on the red SUV. A Ford. All American. From a distance, Bruce looked like an advertisement that might belong in AARP. The silver in his stubble and hair caught the sun, making him shine just a little bit. He seemed much more relaxed, like he had unburdened himself and things were no longer in his control for better or worse. Harrison breathed a sigh of relief.
"You left your coat and some doohickeys at the bar," Harrison handed over his father's belongings and pressed the button on his remote key to unlock the door.
“I should confess something else,” Bruce said softly, but Harrison was already inside of the car, making the usual show of adjusting his seat and exaggerating the legroom he needed for the twenty-minute journey home.
Bruce considered his options for a moment and shrugged. He already made a confession to sacrificing the boy's mother, may she rest in peace. Any details were unnecessary.
He slid into the passenger seat of the roomy SUV and watched his son. Harrison had grabbed a pair of sunglasses from the glove compartment and spent some time cleaning them before slipping them on. He checked his reflection several times before he got the car started.
"You pretty enough to drive now?" his father teased.
"What? There’s a glare," Harrison said. He glanced in the rearview mirror and quickly turned his head, sure he had seen someone just behind the car. Just a strange shadow. Probably.
“Not for long. We got a storm coming up.”
"The Wanderer, Part I" © 2017 by J.A. Strawn
Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime (Getty Museum) - Pierre-Paul Prud 1805 - 1806
Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program.